Ferry outage in Southeast Alaska could extend through end of March. AKLEG Day 17 Recap

The Alaska Marine Highway System. (Photo by Gillfoto/Wikimedia Commons

The Senate Finance Committee continues to be the committee to watch. The jettisoning of Dunleavy-aligned senators has concentrated power in the hands of senators who are experienced at cutting through the bullshit to get at what’s really going on.

Thursday’s meeting was their chance to review Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s supplemental budget request and it’s the main topic of today’s recap. Here’s a rundown of some of the highlights as well the few other things on my radar:

Ferry outage

The committee got to hear from Department of Transportation Commissioner John MacKinnon on the state of the Alaska Marine Highway System. Senate Finance Committee Co-Chair Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, told MacKinnon to talk straight about the problem.

“I’d like to ask the commissioner that we put the sugar coating outside the door and put this mess in the middle of the table,” he said. “We’re going to have to deal with it so there’s no use in pretending it’s not what it is.”

MacKinnon was candid, noting that the system is facing serious maintenance problems up and down the fleet, which is completely tied up except for one small shuttle ferry. The state announced on Wednesday that they had cancelled all sailings on the M/V Matanuska, which serves Juneau and other communities, through March 1. MacKinnon said it’s possible that it’ll be worse than that.

“There’s a good likelihood we will not have service in Southeast in March,” he said.

MacKinnon explained how the state has worked to get the folks stranded in Juneau when the M/V Matanuska broke down last week, coordinating with the military to get soldiers out of there and chartering $11,000 of catamaran trips to get school students home.

He was less clear about the remaining individuals with vehicles in Juneau or legislative staff with vehicles that have been stuck in Haines for nearly a month. He said the state was concerned about setting precedent (as private vehicle transportation by barge is particularly expensive).

As for the state of the AMHS fleet, which is almost entirely tied up currently, MacKinnon said “there’s going to be a lot of finger pointing,” noting that newly installed equipment on the Matanuska in November was the apparent cause of the latest failure.

Senators were frustrated that the entire mainline fleet is out of service all at the same time. Though there’s certainly finger pointing to be done, Stedman said, it’s not at the members of the Alaska Legislature.

“Fingers shouldn’t be pointed at this table. We funded the (administration’s) request for the marine highway,” Stedman said. “In fact, this committee overfunded the request in last year’s budget for the marine highway to the tune of about $27 million. And added back substantial millions in marine highway funds for maintenance.”

Stedman continued that the ongoing lack of ferry service—which, again, could continue through the end of March—not only creates problems for residents along the line but that it would seriously hamper the state’s ability to respond to potential disasters.

“There is some concern that we’re in a position today with our fleet tied to the dock and inoperable that if we had a significant impact to the state, it would hinder our response, including to an oil spill,” he said. “It’s much broader than moving a car or an Alaskan from point A to point B.”

To the public, Stedman said they should be prepared to go without service until April.

“Plan accordingly,” he said.

In the meantime, Stedman pledged to continue to work on the ferry system and hold the administration accountable for the state of the ferry system.

No VPSO funding

The supplemental budget includes plenty of money for Alaska State Troopers, including money to buy them brand new vehicles. It contains precisely zero dollars for the Village Public Safety Officer program.

Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, asked if it meant that everything was going perfectly with the program.

“Can I assume that a lack of request of funds for the operation of the VPSO program is a result of that program running at 100 percent and pumping on all cylinders and people in rural Alaska should feel very, very safe and sleep well at night?” he asked.

OMB Director Neil Steininger responded that “the amount of money they have is sufficient for their operations this year.” (Several tribally run VPSO programs have complained that the state has stymied their attempts to recruit, train and retain officers by denying requests for such funds.)

Hoffman said it didn’t answer his question.

“The question is: Should people of rural Alaska, as a result of no additional funds being requested, feel that the program is running at full steam, pumping on all cylinders and the people of Alaska should feel safe at night? It’s yes or no.”

“The goal of the Department of Public Safety is that everyone should feel safe at night,” he said.

But when asked about the vacancies in the VPSO program or for a status on what the state has spent on recruiting and training village public safety officers or the status of a report to make overhauls to the VPSO program, neither Steininger nor the DPS budget manager could say.

DPS Commissioner Amanda Price apparently stepped out of the hearing during this discussion. In her absence, they said they would have to get back to the committee. Price was, however, able to fully participate in the House Finance Committee meeting later in the day.

Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, jumped into say that the working group on the VPSO program showed that the program’s staffing is at an all-time low and that the recommendation is to remove it from the Department of Public Safety to a potentially more responsive department.

“Sen. Hoffman asked if whether people should be sleeping better at night because they can feel secure in their communities,” Olson said. “I think that is an absolute no at this point.”

Stedman added, “That’s the answer I would expect.”

Alaska Pioneer Homes

“An additional $1 million is needed to ensure no seniors are kicked out of those homes,” Steininger told the Senate Finance Committee.

Oof.

Yes on pool

The supplemental budget does, however, include $100,000 in undesignated general fund spending and $150,000 in authority to collect fees for the Mt. Edgecumbe pool, which had been shuttered after Dunleavy vetoed its ability to collect entrance fees last year.

It’s a particularly important issue to the committee because the Sitka-based Mt. Edgecumbe is a boarding school for students who don’t have similar high school opportunities in their communities (so mostly rural students), which means it has many students from districts represented by Sens. Hoffman and Olson. It’s also located in Stedman’s district.

Stedman said he appreciated the money because “The school has been cannibalizing books and pencils for the kids to keep that facility open.”

Hoffman noted that his district has a high number of drownings and said that the pool should be considered a life, health and safety issue, suggesting that swimming classes be made mandatory.

It was the nexus of a conversation about equity between rural and urban Alaska as it’s built into the budget. Stedman said it will be a goal to build equity into the budget.

“The committee will not look in the rears and ask for equity. It will be looking for equity today going forward,” he said.

Obviously there’s work to be done on issues like the ferry, VPSO and the state’s handling of the REAL ID program. The last issue on that list raised the ire of the committee as the administration suggested that issuing REAL ID-compliant identification to rural Alaska wasn’t, after all, that big of a pressing issue.

Department of Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka suggested that passports, military IDs and photo IDs from federally recognized tribes would be a far easier solution. When Tshibaka eventually conceded that she had no idea about the prevalence of tribal IDs in Alaska (they’re not particularly widespread), Hoffman couldn’t hold back.

“Do your homework,” he said.

Read the full story over here: ‘Do your homework.’ Senators blast administration for downplaying REAL ID concerns in rural Alaska

Hate crime legislation heard, advanced

Meanwhile, the House State Affairs Committee heard public testimony on House Bill 198, a measure that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected classes for determining whether a crime qualifies as a hate crime.

The legislation has long been a priority of sponsor Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, but it has gained renewed traction in light of a violent assault on the Kenai Peninsula of LGBTQ activist Tammie Willis. The assault spurred calls for changes, including the promise by Rep. Gary Knopp to work on the issue (Sen. Peter Micciche, though, said he couldn’t commit to supporting such a measure).

The committee advanced the legislation after hearing testimony, including from Willis and the ACLU. The legislation heads next to the House Judiciary Committee.

“In an ideal world, where everyone is treated with respect and dignity, legislation like HB 198 and HB 182 would not be needed,” Willis said, according to a report by KTVA. “But our world is not there yet. Until it is, HB 198 sends a clear message from our leaders that hate and violence are not the values we share as a community. They are not Alaskan values and they will not be tolerated.”

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