Lawmakers and the public alike identified the Alaska Marine Highway System as one of the most important issues that need to be addressed during the ongoing legislative session.
State Reps. Andi Story, Sara Hannan and Sen. Jesse Kiehl, all Juneau Democrats, said during a Native Issues Forum held at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall that maintaining and increasing service of the ferry system that connects coastal Alaska is a top priority for Juneau’s legislative delegation. They were also asked multiple times about what can be done to restore ferry service in the region.
“It’s one of the central issues will work on, and our colleagues from coastal Alaska will work on, during this session,” Kiehl said.
He was responding to a question from Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska 2nd Vice President Jackie Pata.
“We have, I’m pleased to say more allies than we’ve ever had, and that I think is in part an answer to your question,” Kiehl said.
He and Hannan each discussed how public outcry in favor of the AMHS and the Legislature helped make sure ferry service was not totally eliminated from October through June as initially proposed last February by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
“The Legislature refused to go along with that,” Kiehl said, “but the compromise that had to be forged based on estimates from DOT (Department of Transportation and Public Facilities) based on how much service they could offer with how much money was brutal. We saw when the schedule came out in the fall, Alaskans from across the state step up and realize the magnitude of damage to Alaska families, to the coastal Alaska economy.”
Story said determining short- and long-term solution will be important, and she, Hannan and Kiehl each encouraged those in attendance to continue to voice their support for the ferries.
After the meeting, Kiehl said whether increased support for the AMHS will result to the votes needed to appropriate funds remains to be seen.
“I’m optimistic with really hard work we’ll have the support to start to rebuild the ferry system,” Kiehl said.
Education support needed
While ferries took the brunt of the focus, they weren’t all that was discussed.
Story spotlighted a pair of education-related bills, one that she supports and one that has yet to be introduced.
One bill, House Bill 24, would allow districts case-by-case flexibility to hire language immersion teachers who are qualified to lead a classroom in an Alaska Native language but are unable to earn a full teacher certification. Story is one of the bill’s sponsors.
“The state government is responsible for the loss of language, and we need to be responsible for bringing it back,” Story said.
She said she also has a bill she intends to introduce this week that would increase the base student allocation by $30 million.
“The governor fully funds the base student allocation this year, which is great, I’m really glad for that support, but remember last year, we got $30 million outside the formula for our schools, so flat funding is a cut to each of our child’s education,” Story said.
She said that change would be realized by changing formula that allots districts money based on the number of children who attend schools within the district.
“That bill is going to need a lot of support,” Story said. “It’s a heavy lift with the way our budget situation is, but I say children are our priority. You reap the rewards and you save money down the road.”
Hannan said the delegation tends to work together in pursuit of common goals since the lawmakers are largely on the same page.
She said not every district’s lawmakers are so synched up, and it is nice that she typically agrees with the policy goals of her senator and fellow representative.
“Our arguments are about what kind of snacks we’re going to take to our town hall,” Hannan said jokingly. “These are the divisions amongst the three of us. They’re not really substantive.”