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Ferries face new budget challenge in Senate

  • Author: Pat Forgey
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 24, 2015

JUNEAU -- The budget roller coaster ride is continuing for Alaska's ferry system in the Alaska Senate.

This time, a subcommittee that contained both of Southeast's senators was unable to stave off the cuts.

Gov. Bill Walker first proposed cuts to the Alaska Marine Highway System, the "road" for numerous coastal and island communities, and the House of Representatives cut even further.

Now, the ferry system's budget has begun working its way through the Senate, where a subcommittee of the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday cut an additional $6 million from the system's $152 million unrestricted general fund budget.

Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, chair of the subcommittee setting the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities budget, said the cuts were "significant," but that nobody was happy about making them.

"There's no one on this committee rubbing their hands" with glee about the cuts, Micciche said.

But Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, talked of "crippling the economy of coastal Alaska." After the meeting he talked of continuing to try to restore the funds that had been cut, but said he didn't know what the chances of success would be.

Fellow Southeast Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, also urged that the funds be restored and questioned the committee's action not to fund pay increases previously negotiated with ferry unions.

"I think that we should look across all of our departments and treat all of our departments the same, with the budget constraints that we have," he said.

But Micciche said the ferry system needs ongoing subsidies and is only bringing in a portion of its costs. Per capita costs of ferries, he said, were $1,082 for 106,000 primary users, while roads cost $35 per capita for 677,000 primary users, he said.

Micciche said they were trying not to cut too far.

"We're trying to leave a ferry system as fully functional as possible while still trying to keep from burdening future Alaskans," he said.

But Egan saw things differently and proposed charging user fees at regional airports, which he said only pay an eighth of their cost, less than ferries.

Stedman proposed an amendment to the committee budget restoring the pay raises, but then withdrew it rather than challenging the majority caucus of which he is a part.

Egan proposed his budget amendment to restore money to the ferry system, but then withdrew it rather than forcing Stedman into a politically awkward vote.

The transportation budget now goes to the full Senate Finance Committee, where ferry supporters can try to restore the cuts.

That's happened twice before, first when Gov. Bill Walker was persuaded to reduce ferry cuts he'd originally proposed, and then in the House of Representatives, where the House Finance Committee restored a portion of the aggressive cuts made by a budget subcommittee there.

But this time that roller coaster may not go back up.

The budget subcommittee making the cuts included Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, and Sen. Pete Kelly, co-chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, in charge of the operating budget. And ferry-dependent Southeast's senators are both already on the subcommittee, where they were unable to protect the ferry system from the cuts.

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