During her town hall meeting Wednesday night, Rep. Andi Story, D-Juneau, said this year’s legislative session has been a challenging one as a first-year lawmaker, but said she’s learning quickly.
“We’ve been grappling with huge issues this year because the issues we’re talking about are going to affect Alaska forever,” Story said. “We’re trying to do them right now.”
Two of those issues — the size of the Permanent Fund Dividend and the future of the Alaska Marine Highway system — took center stage at Wednesday’s event at the Mendenhall Valley Public Library. Story was happy that the Legislature passed an operating budget but that her main issue with the proposed operating budget was a cut to the ferry system.
Many of those on hand agreed, as the AMHS’ future dominated the conversation Wednesday. More than 30 people were in attendance, including multiple AMHS employees.
John Wynne, a former legislator in the state of Washington and a recent retiree from the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, summed up many people’s thoughts with a comment he made during the question-and-answer segment.
“I don’t think the governor understands how important the ferry system is to Southeast,” Wynne said. “He’s not closing roads anywhere else in the state other than in Southeast, with the marine highway system.”
Gov. Mike Dunleavy proposed a $98 million cut to the ferry system in his initial budget proposal. The Legislature’s proposal cuts less than half of that, as Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, said on the Senate floor this month that the final cut from the Legislature ended up being $38 million. That will result in reduced service, especially to the smaller communities in Southeast such as Angoon and Hoonah.
The cut to the system has not been finalized. Dunleavy has not yet signed the operating budget passed by the Alaska Legislature, and the new fiscal year begins July 1. Story, a member of the House Majority, voted in favor of passing the Legislature’s version of the operating budget, which rejects many of the cuts Dunleavy made in his initial budget proposal.
About 30 people attended Story’s town hall meeting Wednesday, and many of them chimed in about what they’ve heard about the cuts to the marine highway and why they think the cuts are being made. Patrick Phillips, a deck officer for the AMHS, said he knows the governor’s support bases are cities such as Wasilla and Palmer.
“I don’t know how the cuts are going to affect those communities,” Phillips said. “I know how they’re going to affect Kake, Angoon, Sitka, Ketchikan, the communities I visit. I think if he was beating up the communities up there equally to these communities, he wouldn’t get re-elected.”
Story was diplomatic during the meeting, trying to explain the governor’s reasoning for his proposed cuts.
Story offered an explanation about the next major challenge for the Legislature, as a special session: the Permanent Fund Dividend. All the attendees who shared their opinion Wednesday were in favor of a smaller dividend, especially after Story showed statistics saying the state would have a $1.15 billion deficit if it paid out a $3,000 PFD to every resident.
The Legislature is about to begin a second special session focusing specifically on the size of the dividend. Story said it’s taken so long to figure this out because the future of the PFD is a huge question for the future of the state as a whole.
Wynne and Phillips both said it appears that Story is doing what she can do as a freshman lawmaker.
“I think she’s doing a great job for a first-year politician under a very stressful situation,” Phillips said. “I kind of get the feeling that she wants to protect the PFD. Obviously we all do, but there’s a sense of hopelessness here.”
Story said she’s still upbeat about the state’s future, but with the budget still hanging in limbo and the PFD amount not yet set, she understands the frustrations coming from her district and beyond.
“While I am optimistic about Alaska figuring these things out,” Story said, “I’m very aware of the issues that you brought up here tonight. I can’t even tell you how worried many people about their jobs, their livelihood. They want to live in Southeast Alaska, they want to live in Alaska.”
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.