I attended Thursday's hearing on the request for $20,000 to hire someone to write the final report of the Cook Inlet Salmon Task Force, a legislative panel looking at weak runs and chronic allocation fights in the region.
Bottom line: Legislators never voted on the request.
State Rep. John Harris, a Valdez Republican and chairman of the joint committee considering the request, instead directed fellow Republican Rep. Craig Johnson of Anchorage to first consult with the Legislature's "presiding officers" on the matter. The presiding officers are Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, and House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski.
Johnson headed the salmon task force and was the one seeking the money to write the report, which he said might run 100 pages and cover some intensely technical material the task force gathered during the course of its work.
But his choice of writers, Mark Higgins of Anchorage, seemed to raise eyebrows.
Turns out Higgins is married to a member of Johnson's staff, Debra Higgins.
Johnson said the writing job will take someone with real ability plus plenty of time. Harris asked him if perhaps someone already in the state's employ could do the work.
"I haven't found that person," Johnson replied.
Johnson told Deckboss after the hearing that the contract wasn't advertised. Rather, he just happened to know of a good candidate for the work in Mark Higgins.
According to his resume, Higgins has done a lot of political and public relations consulting, including "emergency 'spin' control." He also was an aide to former state Rep. Mike Szymanski during the 1980s.
Higgins, who has a law degree from the University of Utah, has done consulting work for the commercial fishing industry on such issues as Bering Sea pollock and crab allocation.
At Thursday's hearing, state Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, said to Harris: "Mr. Chairman, I've got a whole lot of concerns about what's going on here."
For one thing, Stedman said it was his understanding that the presiding officers were to be strongly involved with the Cook Inlet Salmon Task Force, which the Legislature created in the spring of 2008.
Stedman questioned the "appearance" of Johnson acting as project director for a $20,000 contract awarded to the spouse of one of Johnson's own staff aides.
Johnson said he'd be fine with someone else supervising the writing contract, as he has great confidence that Higgins can write a fair report that might be a "catalyst" for policy debate in the Legislature.
The hearing concluded without a vote on Johnson's funding request.
Rather, committee chairman Harris made "an executive decision," directing Johnson to run the request past the Senate president and House speaker, each of whom has the power to approve the contract.
Speaker Chenault, for one, indicated during the hearing that he was comfortable with Higgins.
Of course, Deckboss will follow up on this.
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