Hundreds rally in support of state ferries. AKLEG Day 22 Recap

Ferry supporters rally outside the Capitol steps on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2020. (Photo by Alaska House Majority)

It’s busy. Too busy. Here’s what I could keep up with.

If you ever see something I’ve missed (and I’m sure there’s plenty), feel free to reach out via email at [email protected] or via Twitter.

Ferry rally

Hundreds of people came out in support of the Alaska Marine Highway System in several rallies held around Alaska on Tuesday, demanding the governor and Legislature to do something about the crisis facing communities facing a complete lack of service.

Currently, all major ferries are either tied up due to funding cuts to the system or due to unexpected breakdowns. It’s left several coastal communities without regular deliveries of groceries, students without an affordable way to travel and several legislators without their vehicles. The Legislature is also hosting a legislative fly-in of students this week and the state of the ferry system has been a central issue.

With service out until at least early March—and possibly longer, according to Department of Transportation Commissioner John MacKinnon—the state is considering plans to contract out services with private companies but has yet to announce anything firm on that front.

The demonstrations also raise the issue of equity in the state’s budget as the lack of coastal transportation has hit many Alaska Native communities particularly hard. That several Mat-Su legislators turned their back on the situation and claimed that people “choose” to live in rural Alaska is not going unnoticed.

“From the tribes’ perspective, enough is enough,” said Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson, president of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, according to a report by Juneau Empire’s Peter Segall covering the rally on the Capitol steps. “Our communities are the most affected. This marine highway is the lifeblood of Alaska.”

Peterson told the crowd that perhaps it’s the ferry detractors that should consider leaving Alaska.

“For people to flippantly say, ‘Well you choose to live in rural Alaska.’ Yeah, I choose to live where my ancestors have lived for 10,000 years. Absolutely, damn straight,” Peterson told the Empire after the rally.

Alcohol bill heard

Ah, the Title IV rewrite.

Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, is making another run at shepherding through a massive rewrite of Alaska’s alcohol laws. It’s one of those bills that’s built on consensus from a bunch of different stakeholders but has routinely been stymied by the alcohol lobby at the last minute.

Perhaps this year might be different. It’s already worked its way through 10 hearings across the Senate’s Labor and Commerce, and Judiciary committees.

Senate Bill 52 was heard in the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday, where committee co-chair Sen. Natasha von Imhof had described it as “the big one.” The hearing was largely an overview of the 121-page bill that drilled into issues surrounding by-mail alcohol deliveries as well as changes to penalties for violating Alaska’s alcohol laws.

Several rural legislators expressed concern about how the by-mail alcohol deliveries would interact with local option communities where alcohol sales and possession are outlawed. They were concerned that it might serve as a way to smuggle alcohol in, but Micciche argued that it wouldn’t.

By-mail (well, by UPS or FedEx as USPS doesn’t deliver alcohol) alcohol sales already can occur in Alaska but are unregulated in pretty much every way and Micciche argued the law would create a way to track such sales for the first time.

“This is not going to cure the smuggling of alcohol into local option areas. That’s going to continue. The U.S. mail does not ship out alcohol,” he said. “This is an option that will finally track alcohol sales throughout Alaska from out of state. … These carriers will not carry alcohol into those areas that are local option. They don’t today, by knowledge. Now they will know what’s in that package because it’s registered from cradle to grave. It is a system that is a dramatic improvement.”

It wouldn’t be surprising to see the committee offer an amendment on this issue as the main concern was about clarity in the law.

The second part that came up were several instances where the alcohol-related crimes—like overserving, serving minors or serving without a license—would be shifted from misdemeanor crimes to $500 fines.

The thinking, according to Micciche, is that the legal process of charging people with misdemeanor crimes more often than not ends up with no penalty at all. A fine, which wouldn’t have to go through the courts, would be a more consistent and immediate way to penalize people.

“We’re looking for something that actually worked, would be enforced, would be charged and would result in a significant hit to the bartender,” he said. “It seems that what is happening and what is in law today is not effective and we are looking for something that would have a more effective outcome.”

The bill was set aside and is not scheduled to be heard the rest of this week.

Budget subcommittee notes

Several budget subcommittees are in the process of wrapping up this week and I’m still catching up on the more interesting ones (I currently have the Health and Social Service subcommittee playing in the background as I write this). Here’s some takeaways:

  • The subcommittee on the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development aren’t just bothered by the no-bid, sole-source contract awarded to the grandson of a key Dunleavy booster (read about that here: Legislators use budget to rebuke administration for no-bid contract with grandson of Dunleavy donor). They’re also not particularly enthused by the administration’s explanation of its economic development efforts. They rejected a proposal that would have moved the economic development team out of the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development.
  • The subcommittee on the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities accepted the minimal increase the governor had proposed for the ferry system, which would close some gaps and add back in 8.8 weeks of service for the upcoming year. The committee is holding legislator amendments to its Thursday meeting. Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, said, “I can pretty much guarantee you there will be an amendment coming forward.”
  • The subcommittee on Health and Social Services approved several changes to the governor’s proposed budget. One of the big concerns raised is the administration’s request for additional executives in a department that’s facing massive vacancy gaps in on-the-ground positions. Rep. Ivy Spohnholz said she needs to see the proof that these new positions will actually make a difference.

State of the Judiciary

Chief Justice Joel Bolger will be in front of the Legislature today at 11 a.m. to deliver his annual State of the Judiciary address. It ought to be one to watch as the judiciary has butted heads with Dunleavy over vetoes and the budget this year. Dunleavy took the unprecedented step of meddling with the court system’s budget request before delivering it to the Legislature this year, something that Bolger directly confronted the governor about.

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