Working toward a balanced budget and growing the Permanent Fund are the main goals of the Alaska Senate this session, according to members of the Senate leadership who spoke at the Southeast Conference Mid-Session Summit Tuesday.
Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, Senate Finance Committee chairs Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, and Natasha Von Imhof, R-Anchorage and Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, spoke to the crowd at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall, discussing mainly the budget and the Alaska Marine Highway System.
“The governor’s budget included a full $3,000 Permanent Fund Dividend,” Von Imhof said, referring to Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2021. “(That) will cost the state $2 billion.”
Von Imhof said she wanted to re-frame that expenditure as a $2 billion distribution, which could be going to funding programs and capital improvement projects.
She told the crowd she wanted them to send her written or verbal testimony saying they would accept a lower dividend in order to support state services, which drew a brief round of applause.
Several times the senators made reference to “oversized” or “unsustainable” PFDs which drew too much from the state’s savings.
State programs like school debt bond reimbursement and funding the Alaska Marine Highway System are more important than a full PFD, Von Imhof said.
Asked about the future of the Marine Highway, Stedman, who was recently named by Giessel to be the Senate’s representative on a newly created reshaping committee formed by the governor, said the eliminating the system was not an option.
His goal, he said, was to look at some of the routes up and down Lynn Canal and see if any changes could be made to provide service to the communities that currently weren’t receiving any.
Stedman was also critical of the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities for not making the maintenance needs of the AMHS fleet clearer to the Legislature.
Appropriations for vessel repair weren’t made because of a failed vote, Stedman said, but because the need for the funds wasn’t made clear.
“We didn’t know the whole fleet would be tied up,” Stedman said.
AMHS currently only has one vessel, the Tazlina, making runs. The Matanuska was running but ran into maintenance issues and is currently at the ferry terminal in Auke Bay undergoing repairs.
With a lower PFD, the Legislature could appropriate at least some money to repairs and other improvement projects, Von Imhof argued.
The Permanent Fund itself was a renewable resource, Giessel said, and growing the fund to a point where interest returns on the fund alone could pay for state services was one of her goals. If the state were to draw its Constitutional Budget Reserve down to roughly $500 million, as the governor’s proposed budget would do, that goal would be much harder to obtain.
Despite the grim news surrounding the budget, there were reasons to be hopeful, Giessel said. Bipartisanship and civil discourse has been one of the distinguishing features of this Senate, she said, and it seems as if working towards a mutual beneficial compromise was within reach this session.