The uncertain future of the Alaska Marine Highway System and funding for public safety services dominated the conversation as City and Borough of Juneau Assembly members and the city’s legislative delegates met Friday morning.
Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, was the first legislator to speak at the meeting and called the AMHS “our lifeline,” and said it’s a shame that all of the people at the Capitol don’t understand its importance.
“It’s a horrible thing to say but a lot of Railbelt legislators don’t care,” Egan said. “They don’t want to know how the Alaska Marine Highway System operates. … We had more cuts last year, we may get more cuts this year.”
The ferry system has been on the verge of shutting down due to lack of funds, and could be forced to stop service by the time this summer rolls around.
Rep. Sam Kito III, D-Juneau, said it’s key to find sustainable funding for the ferry system. He also said he’s planning on proposing a bill during this session to force the Legislature to set a schedule for the AMHS before it moves on to the rest of the budget.
Egan expressed concern over news recently that parts of a new Alaska-class ferry, the Hubbard, will be constructed outside of Alaska. When the program was designed, the intent was to have every part of the new ferries built within the state.
“It looks to me and it scares me that it’s not going to work out,” Egan said.
Another prospect that has legislators worried is the lack of resources dedicated to public safety across the state. Rep. Justin Parish, D-Juneau, spoke with particular fervor about the challenges facing prosecutors as well as front-line law enforcement in the state.
There are fewer criminal justice employees statewide, Parish said, putting more work on the plates of prosecutors and public defenders as well as forcing courthouses to keep shorter hours. Police agencies are also stretched thin, as evidenced by the Juneau Police Department announcing that it was operating at about 80 percent capacity in December.
“It really makes our state a less safe to continue in the philosophy of cut, cut, cut,” Parish said. “It’s not wise, it’s not prudent. We must, and we can find areas where we can be more efficient.”
Municipal Lobbyist Kevin Jardell said Friday that public safety and the ferry system will both be priorities during this session. Jardell said the AMHS serves Juneau in particular because Juneau is the hub for all of Southeast. He also spoke a bit about the state continuing to fund education, and others in the room (namely Parish) said they wanted the Legislature to look more into funding early childhood education.
Multiple people said this will be an important session both for Juneau and the state as a whole, and Kito took a few pointers from Gov. Bill Walker’s State of the State address in saying that legislators need to put aside their differences to reach a budget solution this session.
“One of the problems we have in our nation, in our state, sometimes in our local government, we end up pointing fingers,” Kito said. “It becomes a case of ‘us and them,’ but we have to realize that them is us. We are all one people. We are all residents of Juneau, we are all residents of the state of Alaska, we are all residents of our great country.”
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.