Education, transportation concerns loom large

Stevens: Oil is probably going to remain low for a very long time

Budget cuts impacting education and transportation, as Alaska struggles with a fiscal crisis, head the list of concerns of community leaders and legislators representing the Cordova area.

On the eve of the second special session of the Legislature, which begins on July 11, they talked about those concerns and more, and what residents must prepare to deal with.
Beyond education issues, one impact that urban legislators don’t understand, they said, is that reducing marine highway service to Cordova will affect the economy of Anchorage too.

“I’m really concerned about cuts to education,” said Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, a retired college history professor.

“I’ve always been impressed with how well Cordova has done with K-12 education,” he said. “If we do nothing else, we have to educate our children. I’m sorry to see these cuts come down, but we have to find a way to survive.

“Oil is probably going to remain low (in value) for a very long time,” he said. “We’ve always been saved by oil coming back, but now they are saying it will be years before oil comes back, so we have to find a way to pull up our own socks and find a way to deal with it.
“We will look at other places to reduce the budget, and if anyone has any suggestions, for goodness sake, let me know,” he said.

“The cuts that concern me the most are education funding cuts,” said Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak.

For school bonds, the state’s contribution has been cut from 70 percent to 50 percent, and in basic student allowances, the cuts drove the allocation per student from $50 to $25 for K-12. “That’s a pretty significant hit, particularly to rural communities that depend on those funds,” Stutes said.

Still this state is in trouble fiscally, and everyone has to participate to get it back on its feet, she said. “There is no question that the state is in fiscal dire straits and everyone has to have skin in the same. We live here and have had the Permanent Fund Dividend in excess of 30 years and it is time we pay back. What other state would give you money to live there? One thousand dollars is better than $500, which is better than zero,” she said.

As for the oil industry, “there is no place in the world you can drill for oil and get a better deal than in the state of Alaska,” she said. Gov. Bill Walker’s decision to veto oil and gas tax credit payments “doesn’t mean we don’t owe them, but we don’t have to pay a penalty or interest for not paying them today,” Stutes said.

“We have to stabilize the economy first.”

Neither Stevens nor Stutes said they anticipated overrides in the upcoming special legislative session of line-item budget cuts made by Gov. Bill Walker in the wake of the first special legislative session. Both also expressed reluctance to approve additional taxes on fisheries, measures that have not come yet to the House floor.

“We are in the midst of a fiscal crisis,” said Cordova Mayor Clay Koplin. “We are going to make cuts if we want to or not, and those cuts are going to affect Cordova.

“But it’s important to make the cuts strategically,” he said.

“You need to strategically cut in places where you can afford to, where it will not cripple the economic. You have to make investments to turn the ship around.”

Koplin said one of his particular concerns was that the fast freight ferry Chenega is currently tied up in Seattle and there is a request for proposals out to tow it into storage and moor the vessel there indefinitely.

The Chenega, with its crew of 26, has been a huge contributor to the Cordova economy, boosting tourism industry dollars flowing into the city significantly since that daily service began during the tourism season in 2005. The only other public transportation options for getting to Cordova are by airplane or the Alaska Marine Highway System’s Aurora ferry, which takes 7.5 hours, rather than the 2.5 hours it takes the Chenega, a fast ferry, to make its runs from Whittier and Valdez, he said.

“We built a good portion of the visitors industry model for Cordova around it,” he said. The Cordova Center was sized to handle fast ferry size visitor numbers, he said.

Koplin said urban area legislators don’t seem to understand how the fast ferry to Cordova benefits them.

“We think the benefits to the Anchorage economy are better than to Cordova,” he said. “When the fast ferry was here, we shopped from Anchorage, but now we are back to shopping on Amazon.”

Koplin said he planned to meet with Anchorage officials in the coming week regarding the fast ferry. “I don’t think all of mainland Alaska realizes how much this affects their communities too,” he said. And many of the 26 Chenega crew members now out of a job are from Cordova, he said.

“Things need to be done in lieu of cuts,” said Jim Kacsh, president of the Cordova Chamber of Commerce, and former mayor of Cordova.

While the oil industry is in a downturn, commercial fisheries and the tourism industry are not failing at all, and robbing Peter to pay Paul is not the answer to the fiscal crisis, he said.

Kacsh expressed concern over cuts to the Alaska Marine Highway system, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and lack of funding for repairs to the Copper River Highway.

“The state is walking away from the road, and that’s not what we do in America,” he said. “We still have a duty to the people of Alaska to maintain our infrastructure. Our (legislative) representatives know how we feel and they are doing what they can to protect our industries, but rural Alaska no loner has the voice we used to have,” he said.

What legislators should be doing in the upcoming special session is asking Alaskans what they are willing to pay for certain infrastructures, he said. “We have been living high on the hog with oil money.

“An income tax won’t solve it, but I think you need to look at asking Alaskans what they are willing to pay. We are not going to cut our way to prosperity. We’re going to cut ourselves deeper into the hole.”

Stutes and Stevens are doing a fantastic job representing Cordova, according to Kasch.

Where they are having trouble is trying to get the point across to the urban center legislators, he said.

Stevens and Stutes agree, but said it’s hard to get legislators representing urban areas to understand.

“In Cordova, you used to get your groceries out of Seattle, but now almost everything comes out of Anchorage, so that ferry from Whittier to Cordova does great business for Anchorage,” Stevens said. “A lot of business done in Cordova benefits businesses in Anchorage.”

“Take a look at the Cordova Center,” said Stutes. “That is the Alaska spirit.

“When the construction effort got stuck for lack of funds and they didn’t know how to finish paying for it, the Rasmussen Foundation donated, and the city of Cordova did a bond themselves.

“It has become a focus point, a gathering point. That’s the Alaska spirit,” she said.