Fisheries issues moving through House

Effort on to restore millions cut from AMHS

Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, presentrs at ComFish Alaska 2019 in Kodiak on Thursday, March 29. Photo by Margaret Bauman/The Cordova Times

Dear Friends and Neighbors,

A lot transpired in the Legislature this past week and there is quite a bit on this week’s agenda. Here is a rundown of the goings on down in Juneau.

Fisheries Committee last week:

On April 2, the Fisheries Committee considered HB 105-COMM FISHERMEN’S FUND: VESSEL OWNER CLAIMS. HB 105 is a common-sense piece of legislation that allows skippers to fully recover their P&I deductible from the Fishermen’s fund when an injured crewmember makes a claim against the fund and the P&I policy, providing further incentive for vessel owners to have insurance.

On April 4, the Fisheries Committee passed HB 105 out of committee and heard and held HB 65, the governor’s repeal of the municipal share of the raw fish tax. The commissioner of the Department of Revenue presented on the legislation. To watch that meeting please type bit.ly/2YU0Ult in your web browser.

This bill is extremely unpopular with municipalities, the legislature in general, and residents of coastal communities. I wanted to give this bill a hearing so that we could have the administration’s reasoning, or lack thereof, as well as what the public thinks of this proposal on the record.

Public testimony on this bill will likely be on April 16, but I will be sure to update you once a time is finalized. As previously stated, this bill is very unpopular overall and I would venture to say that it will not move from committee; however, it is important that coastal Alaskans have their voices heard on this issue.

Transportation Committee last week:

On April 2, the House Transportation Committee heard from the U.S. Coast Guard regarding how it utilizes the Alaska Marine Highway. It was a very enlightening presentation. To watch that, please type bit.ly/2I1H6as into your web browser. The presentation on the marine highway begins at roughly 1:25 p.m.

The Operating Budget:

Last week, the House Finance Committee heard the operating budget, took amendments, and passed the bill out of committee. This week, the full membership of the House will debate that budget on the Floor, take amendments, and vote it up or down.

Overall, the House Finance Committee’s budget contained a much more modest $257 million in reductions than the $1 billion in cuts proposed by Governor Dunleavy. However, there were several items that I am not pleased about.

I’ll start with some good news first. Regarding the Department of Fish and Game’s budget, there were several amendments gaining traction that sought to cut $450,000 for commercial fishing projects in our area. Specifically, DFG Amendments No. 3 and No. 5 proposed to cut $200,000 in funding for the Karluk, Dog Salmon, Ayakulik, Upper Station, and Chignik weirs, as well as $189,000 for the Prince William Sound (PWS) Coded Wire Tag Program (better known as the otolith program) and $50,000 for the PWS Tanner crab survey. All of these District 32 projects were slated to be cut by the administration. I was able to add them back into the budget with an amendment in subcommittee and, through no small amount of effort, the amendments to remove them again were defeated by a vote of 7-4. The otolith program in particular is critical for in season management of Cordova’s salmon fisheries.

As for the bad news. Unfortunately, despite coastal legislators’ best efforts, DOT Amendment No. 6, which cut $10 million from the Alaska Marine Highway System, was adopted by the committee. Words cannot describe my frustration that this amendment garnered enough support to pass committee. The budget subcommittee had already begrudgingly reduced the ferry budget by $3 million. Although far short of the $97 million in cuts proposed by the governor, a $13 million reduction would still have some real impacts on service levels.

Over this past weekend, I have been speaking to my colleagues, calling in whatever favors I can, and I am optimistic that I will have the support needed to restore a portion of that $10 million this week. I am still actively negotiating this amendment with other members and, as such, am unable provide any solid details at this time; however, I promise you that I am on the case and will keep you informed as things develop throughout the week.

Another reduction in committee that I will seek to restore this week is the $100 million cut to school bond debt reimbursement from the state. To be clear, this is not a reduction but in fact an elimination of all state funding in FY20. As with the governor’s proposal to repeal the municipal share of the raw fish tax, this would simply rob Peter to pay Paul by shifting a state obligation to local governments/property taxes. I will do everything in my power to get that funding back in the budget as the week progresses. As with the forthcoming marine highway amendment, I cannot commit to details yet but I am working with other members to garner support.

Some other larger cuts coming out of the House Finance Committee include $58 million in Medicaid spending and $10 million from the University of Alaska.

Please keep in mind that as I write this, it is April 8 and a lot of this will have occurred by the time readers of the print version see it. However, if you are reading the online version earlier than Friday you can watch the debate and amendment process on the operating budget live at 360north.org

Fisheries Committee this week:

At 10 a.m. April 11, the Fisheries Committee will consider and take public testimony on the following appointees for the Board of Fisheries: Gerad Godfrey, Israel Payton, Karl Johnstone, and Marit Carlson-Van Dort.

I was pleased at the Governor’s appointment of Gerad Godfrey to the Board of Fisheries. His mother is from Ouzinkie and his father is from Afognak. Gerad himself commercial fished in Kodiak for over a decade, and I am confident that he understands and is sensitive to our regional fisheries issues.

Mr. Johnstone, who previously served on the board, is another story. I will be opposing his confirmation. Without getting into too much detail, the primary reason for my opposition is that he would destroy any semblance of the current balance on the board. During his time on the board from 2008-2015, Mr. Johnstone established a reputation for anti-commercial fishing views. Inverse to last year’s outcry from the sport fishing sector regarding the appointment of our own Duncan Fields, Mr. Johnstone would represent a swing too far in the opposite direction. Commercial fishermen across the state should be very concerned with the shift he would represent for the board.

The committee process is really an opportunity for members to get questions and answers from the appointees on record, as well as give the public an opportunity to testify. The committee does not vote on appointees and cannot choose to hold an appointee.

If you are reading the online version and see this before Thursday, you can view the confirmation hearings in the Fisheries Committee by clicking the following link and finding the meeting in the “live now” tab here: akleg.gov/index.php – tab5.

You can offer your testimony on any of the four appointees by emailing the fisheries committee at HouseFisheries@akleg.gov or by calling 907-465-4648 to receive call-in number.

I expect that the appointees will be in front of the joint session for consideration and a confirmation vote towards the end of next week.

2016 pink salmon disaster relief:

I just wanted to give you a short update on this topic. Through speaking with our congressional delegation and our contacts within the federal government, the expectation was that approval of the Alaska grant should have occurred last week as the west coast 2016 disaster relief grant was approved the previous week.

As I write this, it is April 8. I spoke to Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission on April 5 and the Federal OMB had still not yet approved the grant.

I spoke to Senator Murkowski’s office this morning and they are going to contact OMB to see if they can get more information and speed things along. I will stay on the case and keep you informed as best I can.

If you would like to be added to our disaster relief update list, please contact my fisheries committee aide Matt Gruening at matt.gruening@akleg.gov . We will let you know what we know when we know it.

Please remain engaged and patient. I will update you once I know more.

In the meantime, remember, I work for you.  Please reach out to me with your thoughts on the budget or any other issue that is important to you and your family.

Sincerely,
— Rep. Louise Stutes