Governor withdraws DHSS split order

Reorganizing the department remains a priority.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy last Thursday withdrew an executive order to split the Department of Health and Social Services, citing technical issues with the order. A revised order would be submitted to the Legislature soon after a detailed review of the order, the governor’s office said in a statement.

Dunleavy proposed splitting the department into the Department of Health and the Department of Family and Community Services, saying it would make the state’s largest department easier to manage. The announcement was met with pushback from tribal health organizations who said the split was likely to produce worse social service outcomes. Earlier this week lawmakers raised legal questions related to the order, too.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, requested a memo from the Legislative Legal Division over the weekend, which identified 36 potential legal issues. The memo also noted the order contained multiple errors and technical issues.

The governor’s office has said the changes within the order were well within the purview of a governor’s executive order. A Feb. 24 memo from acting Attorney General Treg Taylor to the Senate Finance Committee cites several examples of restructuring by executive order.

But Wielechowski said the proposed changes were beyond the scope of what’s allowed under an executive order. Orders that make substantive changes to services or worker duties may be subject to litigation, he said, and a proposal to rework a department belonged in the Legislature.

Last Wednesday, the House Majority Coalition announced it was mounting an effort to derail the order and had sent a special concurrent resolution opposing it to the Senate. However, before lawmakers could debate the matter on the floor, the governor withdrew his order.

The coalition issued a statement Thursday praising the governor’s decision.

“I’m grateful to the governor and his administration for listening to the concerns raised during the committee process and for the willingness to hit the reset button,” said Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, who co-chairs the House Health and Social Services Committee, in a statement.

However, the need to reorganized DHSS remains, according to Dunleavy and some lawmakers.

“The revised executive order will focus on separating and highlighting the Office of Children’s Services for better outcomes of Alaska’s children in need,” Dunleavy said.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich released a statement shortly after the governor’s withdrawal of the order, praising the decision.

“Many of us recognize the need to reorganize the Department, but it should be done in a deliberative and thoughtful manner,” Begich said. “I look forward to working with the Governor on this effort.”

Contact reporter Peter Segall at Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.