House committee flooded with calls supporting ferry system
They called from Metlakatla and Unalaska, from Homer and Cordova, from Valdez and Anchorage, from Bellingham, Washington and Hoonah, and from Kodiak Island and Sitka.
On Tuesday, more than 150 people defended the Alaska Marine Highway System against Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s plan to effectively shut it down by Oct. 1.
Dozens more packed the state Capitol halls in Juneau and the House Transportation Committee's room, imploring lawmakers in person to fund and retain the ferries.
Nearly 300 people registered to testify, leaving committee chair Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, to consider resuming public testimony on Thursday.
One Juneau man said Dunleavy’s proposal – constituting a $97 million cut from the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities – was no laughing matter.
“I can only hope that the budget cuts put forth by this governor will likewise be no more than a joke to be revealed in April. Please maintain the budget for the Alaska state ferry system,” said Rich Lyon. “Our citizens need it. And that’s no joke.”
On Feb. 13, Dunleavy rolled out an austerity budget to close a $1.6 billion budget gap. Part of his plan includes the ferry system, which is no longer taking reservations after Oct. 1. Dunleavy also said he planned to hire a consultant to review how the ferry system operates.
Cutting off or even limiting access, supporters say, has broader implications than just to those losing ferry service.
Supporters said the ferries represent commerce, a lifestyle and a lifeline to larger cities like Juneau and Anchorage where they receive medical care, purchase food and goods – even new cars – that are not available in their smaller, coastal communities.
Some were willing to forgo a Permanent Fund dividend or accept an income tax, saying the ferries are a necessary public service. They said a full dividend will not compensate for the lack of transportation options Dunleavy proposes.
They also remind lawmakers that cars belonging to lawmakers and the administration board a ferry to Juneau each January.
“Alaska Marine Highway System is necessary for the health of the cultures, economies and the identify of Alaska,” said Rorie Watt, Juneau's city manager who recently criticized the Dunleavy budget's effects on local governments. “Two requests. One, end the uproar. Provide a base level of funding for the ferry system. The uproar is not honing anyone’s thinking. Second, land on a deliberative process for considering change.”
Senate Finance Co-Chair Bert Stedman says he has been working with the administration on a plan to keep the ferries running after Oct. 1 He says the committee is reviewing three options submitted by DOTPF.
During a finance subcommittee hearing last week, Stedman told members of Dunleavy’s budget team and DOTPF: “You can just put an X through the governor’s plan. We don’t need to go through it. Not that we’re going to kill it, but we’ll give you some options.”
On Monday, Stedman addressed his concerns during a 30-minute press briefing.
“I think it should be very clear to the public that this budget was a serious budget put forth by the governor to fix the perceived deficit,” Stedman said. “The Marine Highway happens to be one of the casualties of that type of approach.
“A step-down, more moderated approach will be beneficial to the state, clearly the economics of coastal Alaska. The potential isolation of our coastal communities is just unacceptable. We don’t want to go back to the '50s, pre-statehood.”
He then sought patience.
“I think for the crew and all the employees and employees’ families, I would just suggest they sit tight for a little longer and not panic,” Stedman said. “Let us work through this process the next couple of months, try to smooth things out.”
Copyright 2019 KTVA. All rights reserved.