This past week was a crucial one in the Alaska Legislature, with it being the first full week after the release of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed budget.
Ferries sailing into uncertain waters
In the governor’s proposed budget, the Alaska Marine Highway System’s budget would be cut by 75 percent and would close down for the winter at the end of September this year. The plan for the ferry system, according to Office of Management and Budget presentations, is to bring in a “qualified marine consultant” to study how to make the ferries more efficient and viable long-term.
Reaction to this plan has been overwhelmingly negative, as the City and Borough of Juneau called a reduction of ferry service would be “likely disastrous.” Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, said in a Senate Finance Committee meeting that shutting down ferry service is “potentially strangling” coastal communities.
The House gets moving
After a month without a speaker or any committee assignments, the House of Representatives finally sprung into action after the budget came out. The day after the budget was announced, Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, was voted Speaker of the House.
Juneau’s representatives, both in their first year in the Legislature, earned co-chair assignments. Rep. Andi Story, D-Juneau, will co-chair the House Education Committee. Rep. Sara Hannan, D-Juneau, will co-chair the Community and Regional Affairs Committee and the special committee on Arctic Policy, Economic Development and Tourism, which is often called AET.
Sixty-nine bills were filed in the House during the week, including Hannan’s first bill, House Bill 63, which would require the lieutenant governor to make a public posting whenever a state job is created, eliminated or transferred.
Finance committees question budget staff
Every day since the unveiling of the budget, OMB staff members presented aspects of the budget to either the Senate Finance Committee or the House Finance Committee. The meetings were tense at times, particularly as senators asked about how much economic impact research the OMB office had done prior to releasing the budget.
University of Alaska Anchorage Associate Professor of Economics Mouhcine Guettabi told the Empire early in the week that he estimates between 13,000 and 20,000 jobs could be lost in the span of a year if the budget goes through as is. A 2016 study Guettabi worked on estimated about 16,000 jobs would be lost by $1.6 billion in state funding.
Legislators asked over and over in meetings whether OMB had done research about potential job losses prior to putting the budget together. OMB Director Donna Arduin repeatedly deferred to OMB Economist Ed King, who was not present at the Capitol this week. He will present to the finance committees sometime soon, but it’s unclear when.
Murkowski shares thoughts on dividend, Legislature’s task
In her interview with the Empire, she said it’s not healthy for the state to value the Permanent Fund Dividend “at the expense of everything else.” Dunleavy’s proposed budget would provide full PFDs while slashing other parts of state funding.
“We have become so tied to what that dividend is, I think it makes us forget what else we do as a state and a state government,” Murkowski said.
In a press conference after her speech to the Legislature, she compared the struggles that the U.S. Congress is facing to the one the Alaska Legislature also faces.
“I think we need to remember that here in Alaska, we’ve got a legislature that’s going to be dealing with some very difficult and very challenging issues,” Murkowski said.
Sullivan plans to introduce sexual assault legislation
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, also addressed the Legislature this week. He mentioned his plan to introduce bills in Congress that would reinvigorate the “Choose Respect” public awareness campaign addressing sexual assault. The initiative was started during former Gov. Sean Parnell’s administration when Sullivan worked as attorney general.
Sullivan said he would introduce a bill at the federal level that would entitle victims of sexual assault to legal representation. Currently, the Constitution entitles anyone accused of a crime to legal representation. His bill would give victims that same right. That way if someone was charged with criminal sexual abuse, both the accuser and accused would receive representation.
“One of the best ways to help survivors of assault break the cycle is to get a lawyer. Then they’re empowered to say, get a protective order or boot the guy out of the house,” Sullivan said in an interview with the Empire.
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.