COVID-19, oil prices put Alaska in uncharted waters

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, 

I hope this update finds you healthy and in good spirits.

These truly are unprecedented times. The impacts of COVID-19 on Alaska’s health and economy are far reaching and uncertainty seems to be the only constant. Further, we find ourselves in uncharted territory as the price of oil hovers around $10 per barrel. 

However, I just want to say that Alaskans are a tough bunch and Cordovans especially so. I am confident that, working together, we can keep Alaska’s infection curve down and get our economy going again. During these uncertain times, please look to my office as a resource for whatever your needs may be. If you have any questions about how to access state or federal aid, what the current health mandates are, concerns or suggestions about COVID-19, or require assistance with anything else, please do not hesitate to reach out. 

For this update, I wanted to cover a few of the Governor’s vetoes, as well as what the next step is for the state of Alaska.

Given all of the uncertainty, I want to focus on solutions, not problems. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my disappointment with the governor’s vetoes, particularly those to the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS). As most of you are aware, the governor vetoed $15.5 million from AMHS’s operating budget and $16 million for crew quarters on the M/V Hubbard. Plain and simple, this funding was desperately needed to increase service to adequate levels. The public outcry over the winter schedule, or lack thereof, made it clear to anyone listening that ferry service is a priority for Alaskans. The AMHS budget we passed this year was the result of many collaborative meetings with DOT throughout a public budget process. In one fell swoop, these vetoes ignored that process, the public, and the future of the system. Please know that I will continue to fight for increased service with every fiber of my being and resource at my disposal.

My plan is to approach any forthcoming supplemental bill as an opportunity to restore AMHS funding and see if we can use some of the CARES funding to restore operating weeks to the system. I will update you as soon as I know more.  

Briefly, a few of the other major vetoes were $30 million in community assistance, $101 million in school bond debt reimbursement,  $36.8 million in REAA school funding, $30 million in one-time education funding, $31 million from Medicaid, $3.2 million for the Ocean Ranger Program, $2.7 million for public broadcasting, $12.5 million from the University of Alaska, $4.3 million from Pre-K grants, and a $1.05 billion transfer from the Earning’s Reserve Account of the Permanent Fund to corpus. 

To see a complete list of the vetoes, please type the following link into your web browser: https://bit.ly/2wYDi5U

As I write this, it is Tuesday evening on April 21st.  The governor is in the process of announcing his plan to reopen Alaska’s businesses on a limited basis, Alaska’s receipt of the $1.25 billion in federal COVID-19 CARES funding, as well as his proposed spend plan for CARES funding. Some of the items in the proposed spend plan are $562.5 million in direct municipal relief, $300 million in small business loan support, $50 million for basic health services such as food banks and soup kitchens, $48 million for local education agencies, $5 million for child nutrition,  $337 million for COVID-19related healthcare costs, $5 million in support for our university system, $29 million in transportation grants (could potentially be used on AMHS), as well as $100 million for direct allocations to subsistence, charter/guide, and commercial fishery participants affected by COVID-19.

I am very encouraged that the state is joining me in requesting that Alaska be allowed to administer its own share of the $300 million in fisheries disaster relief rather than allowing Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission (PSMFC) to administer the funds. I, along with you, have no interest in seeing PSMFC repeat their most recent performance. I have been contacting NOAA directly to make that case alongside the governor’s office.  

The Governor just made this announcement a few moments ago. I am meeting with House and Senate leadership in the morning to work out how to get CARES funding in Alaskans’ hands as soon as possible. It is too early for me to comment on a specific path forward, timing, or what the exact allocation of CARES  funds will be; however, the Legislature and the governor are definitely on the same page regarding getting this funding to Alaskans immediately.

Things are developing daily, and I anticipate that a plan to allocate and distribute the CARES funding will be unfolding very shortly. Please keep your eye on the online version of The Cordova Times for an update between now and next Friday. I will also submit an update in print for next week’s paper.

Briefly, I have been speaking to our congressional delegation several times per week about the status of the different federal programs, additional funding coming down the pipe, and changes that need to be made to make these programs work for Alaskans. Our congressional delegation is aware of the issues fishermen, and other 1099 based businesses, have been experiencing with the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans and Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) and is working diligently to address those. As you are also likely aware, the PPP and EIDL loans ran out of money last week under historically high demand. The Senate just passed a second funding bill for CARES that includes an additional $320 billion for PPP and $60 billion for the EIDL program. The bill will likely be up on the House Floor later this week for a vote, but additional funding is on the way for those programs.

I want to close this update with saying just how impressed I am with how proactive the community of Cordova has been with its preparations and planning for the upcoming fishing season. I know it hasn’t been an easy debate, but Cordova’s hard work is going to pay off in spades as it finds itself much better situated than other communities to successfully and safely prosecute a fishery under COVID-19. My hat is off to you.

Again, please reach out to my staff and I with any questions. We are here to help. I will update the online version of the paper as soon as I have more specifics on the path forward for distributing CARES funding, ferry service, and the many other pressing issues facing our state. 

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 
twitter.com/RepLouiseStutes