Legislative Update: $18.7M back in ferry budget process

Testify today, Feb. 21 at LIO on state operating budget

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

Dear Friends and Neighbors,

As I write this, it is the 30th day of session and the budget process is well underway. Last week, budget subcommittees in the House concluded their work and I wanted to update you on some important developments.

Ferry update

I am pleased to report that last Thursday, I was able to successfully offer and pass an amendment adding $18.7 million back into Alaska Marine Highway System operations. Watch that meeting of the DOT budget subcommittee at bit.ly/2SYNNNF. Although the increase will need to survive the rest of the budget process, adding it was no small feat and is a necessary step towards restoring adequate service levels for coastal communities.

Another critical piece to restoring ferry service will be an infusion of maintenance and repair dollars through the capital budget. As most of you are aware, only one of 12 ferries is currently operating due to poor maintenance. This is completely unacceptable. DOT informed us last week that an additional $23 million in capital funding will be needed to get ships back on the water and allow the $18.7 million amendment to effectively restore service and eliminate gaps. I am currently working with my colleagues on the negotiations to secure the needed maintenance and repair funding in this year’s capital budget.

Aside from the immediate operating and maintenance funding shortfalls, AMHS suffers from a lack of consistent direction and long-term planning, as evidenced by the state of our fleet. The House Transportation Committee will be holding DOT’s feet to the fire about its short-term and long-term decision making, but structural reform is clearly needed. To that end, the House Transportation Committee set a hearing on HB 249, the Marine Highway Corporation bill, for Thursday, Feb. 20.

HB 249, sponsored by my office, would remove AMHS from the political process and provide the efficiency, long-term vision, stability, and accountability that AMHS needs to serve Alaskans effectively in the future. The bill itself stems from the recommendations of the Alaska Marine Highway System Reform Project. Similar public corporation models seen in Alaska are the Alaska Railroad Corporation, Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, and Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, to name a few. This bill still needs work before it becomes law but it, or a change similar to it, is needed to get AMHS on a sustainable path going forward. Watch the archived hearing at bit.ly/2ubCGZp and click the “audio/video” link.

Also of interest regarding AMHS is HB 253-SALE, TRANSFER, OR DISPOSAL OF FERRIES. This legislation, which I have co-sponsored, will require legislative approval in the form of a bill for any sale, transfer or disposal of state ferries. The bill was read across the floor on Monday and was referred to the House Transportation Committee. I expect to hear this legislation next week and plan on amending it to require that any proceeds from such sales be deposited in the Alaska Marine Highway Fund.

There are a lot of moving pieces to this puzzle, but I am keenly aware that there is nothing more important or urgent to the communities I represent than restoring ferry service. You have my word that my staff and I are working tirelessly to retain the operational increase in the budget, secure the capital dollars needed to get ferries back on the water, enforce some accountability at DOT, and further the work on a new governance model through HB 249. I will be sure to update you as things develop and I know more. 

ADF&G update

I am also glad to report some good news from the ADF&G budget subcommittee in the House. Last Thursday, the subcommittee unanimously rejected all of the governor’s proposed reductions to the Commercial Fisheries Division’s budget. Specific to Kodiak, the proposed $23,300 cut to the Frazer Lake weir and the $100,000 reduction to facilities maintenance were rejected. Specific to Cordova, the elimination of the $47,200 for pike suppression was also rejected by the committee. On a statewide level, but extremely important to our local fisheries, the committee rejected the reduction of $159,000 to aquaculture planning and permitting and restored $94,100 for the Prince William Sound Otolith program that was cut last year. All of these projects are critical to opening and maintaining sustainable fisheries in our district, as well as producing revenue for our fishermen and the state. I’m glad my colleagues saw the wisdom in rejecting the proposed reductions. My goal going forward is to work with the House and Senate to ensure that these proposals do not reappear in future iterations of the budget. I will be sure to update you as soon as I know more.

To be honest, it is too early to tell where the negotiations will land on other major components of the budget like the PFD, the Governor’s proposed $1.5 billion draw from savings, revenue measures, or other major proposals. However, I will be sure to update you as soon as there is more to report.

Cordova public testimony on the operating budget Friday and Saturday

The House Finance Committee will be taking public testimony on the operating budget Friday, Feb. 21 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Cordova LIO testimony is slated from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. There is an additional opportunity on Saturday from noon to 3 p.m. for LIOs and offnet callers. If you are unable to get to the LIO, please call 907-465-4648 by 5 p.m. Friday or 2 p.m. Saturday to receive the offnet call-in number. Please testify to show your support for the ferry budget increase, the changes to the comfish budget, as well as your other budget priorities. Your voices are making a difference, so please stay engaged.

Disaster relief update:

I just wanted to give everyone a heads up on some disappointing news in case you haven’t heard through our email list.

According to ADF&G, disaster relief payments to permit holders that listed any crew are delayed until Feb. 28. Bizarrely, payments to those who listed no crew went out last Friday. Previously, the department and PSMFC had committed to review applications and expedite payments to permits with no red flags by Feb. 15. That commitment was clearly not honored, and we weren’t informed that anything had changed until days beforehand.

Honestly, the explanation the department provided for the delay or why permit holders who listed no crew were expedited didn’t make sense to me. I will only say the decision by PSMFC is counterintuitive to addressing the issue at hand, which I understood to be the underreporting of crew. Further, it is opposite of what the department and PSMFC committed to making happen.

I will keep advocating for fishermen and keep you informed as best I can; however, in the interest of accountability and being that I don’t understand PSMFC’s decision myself, please contact Deputy Commissioner Rachel Baker with ADF&G at rachel.baker@alaska.gov for further explanation.

I am certainly going to talk to our congressional delegation about the lack of accountability and accessibility that we saw from PSMFC

As always, please contact Matt Gruening from my staff if you have any questions at matt.gruening@akleg.gov or 907-465-3271.

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

Sincerely,

Louise Stutes

State House Representative for District 32

Proudly Serving Kodiak, Cordova, Yakutat, and Seldovia

Rep.Louise.Stutes@akleg.gov

(907) 465-2487

facebook.com/RepLouiseStutes