Legislative Update: Ferry service is not simply a ‘convenience’

Stutes: DOT comments reveal out-of-touch, cavalier attitude

A lifebuoy aboard the M/V Aurora. (Sept. 19, 2019) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times
A lifebuoy aboard the M/V Aurora. (Sept. 19, 2019) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Dear Friends and Neighbors,

I wanted to provide a brief update on an issue that is very important to our community. Namely, the Alaska Marine Highway System and a winter schedule that leaves Cordova out in the cold.

As I reported in my last update, Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed the $5 million AMHS increase that I was able to add into HB 2001. Given the veto, it didn’t come as a tremendous surprise that DOT subsequently released a final winter schedule with no meaningful changes from the draft.

What does come as a surprise, however, are the Administration’s misconceptions and cavalier attitude about our ferry system despite a record-setting number of testifiers passionately stating the necessity of the system in their communities.

This attitude is embodied by the following comments made by DOT Commissioner John MacKinnon, as reported by Alaska’s Energy Desk last week.

“You don’t see people dying in ferry accidents in Alaska. You see people dying on roads in Alaska,” he said. “When we reduce maintenance to our highways, that’s a direct health, life, public safety issue. When we reduce ferry service, it’s a matter of convenience.”

I cannot imagine a more out-of-touch statement, and this is coming at the end of a robust public process that produced more testimony than any other issue before the Legislature last session (including the PFD). Most of the testimony included heartfelt stories that exampled ways in which ferries serve as many communities’ only access to medical appointments, basic healthcare products, affordable food and household necessities, and any number of things that communities need. I know Cordova’s testimony included many such stories.

I wrote a press release about his comments immediately afterwards, which you can view online at akhouse.org/?p=6801.

There is also a link in the release where you can view the full article by Alaska’s Energy Desk.

It is disheartening to hear that, at the end of this public process and with communities about to lose their only highway all winter, the head of DOT views ferry service as a matter of convenience.

I feel like we are all on the same page regarding the need for winter service in Cordova and, probably, our views on the comments by DOT, so what can we do about it?

For my part, I have not given up on the $5 million that was vetoed in HB 2001 as it is still the quickest route to get money back into AMHS operations. The Legislature has 5 days from when we convene in session to override all or some of the vetoes in HB 2001 (The vetoes themselves are covered in my last update to the Times on August 31st.).

That 5-day clock starts once the Legislature convenes for special or regular session, meaning that there could be an opportunity to address the vetoes as early as this fall if the Governor calls us back in for special session. If that does not occur, and there is some doubt whether it will, the vetoes need to be addressed within 5 days of convening the regular session in 2020.

Although, I would be a yes vote, the Legislature does not currently have enough support to call ourselves back into special session and that is unlikely to change.

Regardless of how and when things unfold, we still need the votes for the overrides, and I am currently working on gathering enough support from my colleagues in the House and Senate to make that happen. I certainly support overriding all of the vetoes in HB 2001 but am focusing on the $5 million. That aside, increasing AMHS’s budget will be my #1 priority next session.

All that being said, how can the public remain engaged and continue to be effective?

Despite comments from an out-of-touch Administration, your voices are making a difference. The Administration’s rhetoric has softened, and it is backing down and even reversing course on issues it was steadfast on 6 months ago.

The number of testifiers, letters, emails, and calls the Legislature received this year in support of the ferry system was amazing. We need to keep the pressure on the Administration until they finally understand what the ferry system means to Alaska.

Continued community engagement will not only be key for these overrides and increasing AMHS’s budget next session, but also for repairing damage that has been done and preventing further harmful cuts in the future.

I strongly encourage all of you to contact the Governor’s Office via phone at 907-465-3500 , via email at https://gov.alaska.gov/contact/email-the-governor/, or via mail to: Office of the Governor, P.O. Box 110001, Juneau, AK 99811-0001, to let him know all the ways that winter ferry service is not “a matter of convenience” for you or your family.

Likewise, please reach out to the Commissioner’s Office at DOT at 907-465-3900, via email at dot.commissioner@alaska.gov, or via mail to: Commissioner MacKinnon, Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities, P.O. Box 112500, 3132 Channel Drive, Juneau, AK 99811-2500.

The Administration recently announced that commissioners will play a larger role in developing their agency’s budget next session and it appears incumbent on us to continue to educate the Commissioner and the Administration on how integral winter ferry service is to life, health and public safety in coastal communities. Apparently, they didn’t hear us the first time, so we must continue to speak, and speak even louder. Working together, I believe we can make it clear to the Administration that consistent ferry service to all communities is not a matter of convenience, and, just as importantly, that we will not go away or accept anything less.

Shifting gears, I want to take a moment to discuss the 2016 Gulf of Alaska pink salmon disaster relief distribution as there have been some recent developments.

An official request for review/appeal form and revised FAQs are now posted on PSMFC’s website at: psmfc.org/fishery-disaster-programs.

The revised FAQs provide updated information about the timelines and specifics of the process moving forward.

Although the deadline to receive a request for review/appeal is “postmarked” by Nov. 15, I would get on it as soon as possible if you plan on appealing your payment amount or eligibility.

As I discussed in my previous update to The Cordova Times published Sept. 4, I have been reaching out to ADF&G, PSMFC and our congressional delegation to make sure they are aware of several issues with how some payments were calculated. The most prevalent issues involve the way 5-year averages were calculated for those with a partial catch history and/or basing payments on all of a person’s limited entry permits instead of just that gear type. Essentially, the result for Prince William Sound seiners is that if you happened to have transitioned from gillnetting to seining during the lookback period and/or started seining after 2010, you likely received a much smaller amount than recipients who did not.

I sent a letter to PSMFC, ADF&G and our congressional delegation, pointing out the issues and requesting that they be addressed favorably in the appeals process. The letter explains the issues in greater detail. If you would like a copy, please contact my office at 907-465-3271.

I have since spoke several times to ADF&G about these, as well as other, issues, with how payments and eligibility were determined. ADF&G recognizes that mistakes were made and is working to ensure that PSMFC is aware of them as well. It is also my understanding that, along with actual commercial fishermen, there will be a department representative on the appeals board. The main issue I see, frankly, is how much money will be available in the appeals fund. There is money already in that fund and ADF&G is looking at ways to loop additional funding from unclaimed payments back to the appeals process while still staying within the grant guidelines.

ADF&G and CFEC have offered their services in assisting people with information throughout the appeals process.

If you have questions about your address on file with CFEC or need to change that address, feel free to reach out to CFEC at 907-789-6160. If you need to confirm specific fish ticket information from 2016 or earlier, that is also available at CFEC for a nominal fee. If you have questions that I or my staff cannot answer regarding appeals or the state’s ongoing interactions with PSMFC on these issues, I can put you in touch with the appropriate person at ADF&G.

I want to close by saying that throughout this three-year process, my staff and I frequently engaged with ADF&G, discussing the various concerns of stakeholders, as well as those we could foresee regarding how payments and eligibility would be determined. In fact, some of the issues that have arisen are ones that were specifically brought to the attention of ADF&G. For example, I was told personally when I asked about it that a fleetwide average would be blended in for those with a partial catch history. So, in other words, if you started fishing in 2014, a fleetwide average for 2012 and the previous years would be blended with your actual catch in 2014 to determine your five-year average. This would have resulted in much more equitable payments. However, that blending of actual and fleetwide averages was never incorporated and as no one saw the final plan as it left the state, it wasn’t brought to light until people started receiving communications from PSMFC in August.

Particularly given the level of input from the stakeholders and my office, I was extremely surprised and disappointed to see that the final distribution plan resulted in large disparities in payments based on what were essentially oversights.

Since we were made aware of these issues, I have been doing everything in my power to bring them to light and ensure that appeals based on these grounds are successful. If you plan on filing an appeal, please reach out to my office at 907-465-3271. I would be happy to write a letter in support of your appeal and assist you through the process.

In the meantime, I will continue to talk to ADF&G and speak to our congressional delegation about ways to bolster the appeals fund.

Remember I work for you. Please contact me anytime to discuss these or any other issues that are important to you or your family.

Sincerely,

Louise Stutes