Legislative Update: Cordova’s fishery, ferry priorities will stay at forefront

A vessel docked in Cordova Harbor. (Aug. 31, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Dear Friends and Neighbors,

It has been a while since my last update, and I want to bring you up to speed on events in Juneau.

After weeks of gridlock during organization, it was my honor to be elected Speaker of the House on Feb. 11. Particularly with Sen. Stevens as Senate Rules Chair, Cordova is well represented in leadership. I am very excited at the new opportunities this will generate for our district.

Further, the majority in the House is once again a bi-partisan coalition committed to protecting the interests of coastal, as well as urban, Alaska. Although I was disappointed at the lost time during organization, the outcome could not have been better for our district or the future of this state.

I have never minced words and I won’t start now. Mathematically, we have a razor-thin majority, as well as a diversity of viewpoints within our caucus. The next few years will be difficult, with hard choices, and full of compromise; however, I have confidence in our members’ resolve to stay the course.

My goal as Speaker, aside from good outcomes for our district and the state, is to bring the House together and end the divisiveness that has paralyzed the Legislature. Now, more than ever, we need bridge builders and leaders who reach across party lines. I have extended invitations to all of my colleagues to join our caucus and in actions, not merely words, am committed to treating all members equally.

There were a number of positive COVID-19 cases in the Capitol Building last week, but swift contact tracing and quarantine measures prevented further spread. We have instituted aggressive COVID-19 safety protocols, and the House will be holding weekend meetings until our business is concluded.

There are new Fisheries and Transportation Committee chairs, positions I have held for the last six and four years respectively. Although I am no longer able to chair either committee, Cordova’s priorities will stay at the forefront. 

On Thursday, March 11,the House Transportation Committee was scheduled to hear HB 63 — Alaska Marine Highway Operations Board, my marine highway reform legislation. Implementing meaningful AMHS reform and restoring service to all coastal communities are still my top priorities. The new chair of the Transportation Committee, Rep. Grier Hopkins, is a ferry supporter and has committed to moving HB 63 swiftly through committee. At the same hearing, the committee would also consider HB 27- Naming Irene Webber Bridge. You can view both hearings archived here: https://bit.ly/3l23LnB

Rep. Geran Tarr is the new chair of Fisheries, but I will continue to serve on the committee as vice-chair. I know some of you may be unfamiliar with Geran and apprehensive at her chairing a committee so vital to Cordova. Rep. Tarr has strongly supported commercial fisheries during her four years on the committee and possesses a keen understanding of fisheries as an economic engine for all of Alaska. She has committed to moving my fisheries bills and priorities forward. Further, her committee aide, who works legislative sessions only, is the skipper/owner of a power troller the rest of the year; he also serves on the Juneau Douglas Fish and Game Advisory Committee as a commercial fishery representative, as well as the Douglas Island Pink and Chum hatchery and Alaska Troller Association boards. I have no doubt that Rep. Tarr will continue to support commercial fisheries and treat all user groups fairly, as she has always done. Please reach out to me or my fisheries aide at matt.gruening@akleg.gov with any concerns, as we will both stay very engaged on this committee. I also sit on the ADF&G budget subcommittee again.

Board of Fisheries confirmations are once again the major concern for Cordova. The current board, operating with four of seven members unconfirmed by the legislature, is running roughshod over commercial fisheries with a flagrant disregard for the public process and the impacts of their decisions. The United Fishermen of Alaska voted unanimously to oppose the confirmation of Chair Märit Carlson-Van Dort, and I will be opposing her as well. Confirmations are likely to happen towards the end of April. 

Two time-sensitive issues the House is working on are the extension of the disaster declaration, as well as passage of the budget.

As you are likely aware, Alaska’s COVID-19 disaster declaration expired on Feb. 14 and has not been reauthorized by the Legislature. Although Alaska’s infection and vaccination rates compare well to the rest of the country, the extension will ensure that Alaska remains fully eligible for any federal aid, which is critical for the seafood processing industry. This legislation also maintains healthcare options that are nimble and effective until we reach herd immunity. The Senate’s version of the bill appears to be stalled but the House’s version was heard twice this past week in the Health and Social Services Committee. The hearing can be viewed archived here: https://bit.ly/2OCLnpk. The expectation was that the bill would be moved from HSS to the Finance Committee on Tuesday, March 9.

Budget subcommittees are in full swing right now and the primary focus of committee work is concluding work on the operating budget. Frankly, the ADF&G budget looks good, being a slight increase over last year.

Long-term reform aside, the AMHS budget has been cut too far to provide adequate service. I am working with the co-chairs of the House and Senate Finance Committees to ensure an increase to this year’s AMHS operating budget.

It behooves me to point out that the Legislature has been increasing the ferry budget only to have it repeatedly vetoed. During special session in 2019, the Legislature added $5 million to vessel operations, which was subsequently vetoed. In 2020, the Legislature added an additional $23.5 million, which would have significantly reduced gaps in service, and the Governor vetoed $15.5 million of that (all from vessel operations).

I was set to have a private lunch with the governor on Thursday, March 11, and the ferry budget would be my primary topic of conversation. The people of Alaska and the Legislature have made it clear that ferry service is a priority worth paying for. It is time for the governor to listen and lay down the red pen.

It is always my goal to keep you as informed as possible and have an open dialogue about my thoughts and decisions. Now that we are organized and settled into our new office, updates will resume their normal frequency. 

There is a lot more I would like to say on fisheries and ferries but due to space constraints, I will submit an update specific to those issues next week.

Remember, I work for you. Please reach out to me with any questions or concerns on these or any other issues important to you and your family.

Sincerely,

Louise Stutes
Speaker of the House 
Proudly Serving Kodiak, Cordova, Yakutat, and Seldovia
Rep.Louise.Stutes@akleg.gov
907-465-2487
facebook.com/RepLouiseStutes