This editorial first ran in the Ketchikan Daily News:
This week’s news of layoffs at the Alaska Marine Highway System has brought home the state budget situation in a very real way.
Most Alaskans understand that plunging oil prices have slashed the revenues that fund most of our state government. Most of us knew that state services would be cut as a result.
Still, the headlines that AMHS had cut 20 shoreside positions and laid off 14 people hit hard.
No longer are state cuts off ahead in some undefined future. They’re here, right now, affecting real Alaskans in real Alaska communities. And, without major changes in the budget situation, the AMHS cuts are likely just the beginning. There’s now little doubt that state workers and those of us who rely on state services and funding — in other words, all Alaskans — are in for some rough sailing.
We can’t speak to the wisdom of the particular AMHS staff reductions. The cuts were spread over several communities served by state ferries, and presumably were made as judiciously as possible.
But there’s no such thing as an invisible cut; the individuals involved and their families are directly affected by the job losses, as are their home communities.
For AMHS, fewer personnel brings lower capacity — and AMHS clearly is preparing for further service reductions.
The AMHS proposed summer 2016 schedule would keep three of its 11 ferries completely out of service and a fourth ferry out for part of that busy season. Overall, the proposed AMHS summer 2016 schedule represents about an approximately 20-percent reduction in service from 2015.
That’s 20 percent fewer opportunities for resident travel, visitor travel, and shipments of goods and services. Fewer opportunities for economic activity in a stunningly large swath of Alaska from Ketchikan to the Railbelt to the Aleutian Island chain.
With those fewer opportunities come greater difficulty in keeping existing customers and attracting new ones, costing AMHS the chance to even maintain revenues. Then, reduced revenues would bring even more legislative complaints about subsidies, setting off another round of budget cuts, employee layoffs and service reductions.
Where does that cycle end?
Most Southeast Alaskans view the Alaska Marine Highway System as core transportation infrastructure that’s vital for the region’s economic health — if not survival. This week’s AMHS cuts and proposed 2016 summer schedule signal that the state has started down a road, perhaps with good intentions, more likely out of a sense of necessity, for which it has no apparent road map or assessment of the potential consequences of traveling that route.
We’re certainly aware that some decisionmakers from other parts of the state have a less-than-favorable view of the ferry system. Perhaps they’re thinking it’s about time that AMHS saw cuts.
Any smugness on their part will be shortlived, however. Given the state’s budget issues, it’s likely that what’s happening to our ferry system will happen to the state services they consider vital soon.
In that, as Red Green would say, “We’re all in this together.”
Challenging times for Alaska have begun in earnest. No one knows how the state budget issue will play out.
We’re trusting that Alaskans can find solutions to the state budget situation that can maintain Alaska as a vibrant, successful place for this and future generations.