Alaska’s budget crisis hits lawmakers where it hurts: their stomachs

The sting of Alaska's budget crisis will hit state lawmakers' stomachs during the upcoming legislative session, with price increases at the Capitol cafeteria and potential cutbacks to the annual seafood smorgasbord organized by the Aleutian town of Unalaska.

Unalaska's reception is a touchstone of the legislative session in Juneau; the city plies lawmakers and staff with crab, cod and halibut at the Baranof hotel downtown.

"When I came to work, people were like, 'Don't miss that one,' " said Jesse Kiehl, a legislative aide who — tragically — doesn't eat shellfish.

But the reception cost $8,000 last year, crab prices are up and Unalaska is expecting less in cash assistance from the state, which itself is facing a massive budget crisis.

"Just like everybody else, we're looking to control costs," said Frank Kelty, a former crab-plant manager and Unalaska's newly elected mayor.

Kelty noted that the city will also be in a better position to lobby the Legislature with Unalaska's representative, Democrat Bryce Edgmon, serving as the new House speaker starting in January.

City council members haven't determined exactly how — or how much — they'll reduce expenses on their annual lobbying trip to Juneau and the seafood extravaganza, which altogether cost upward of $25,000.

One council member, John Waldron, suggested serving crab chowder instead of king crab legs, according to a report by Unalaska's public radio station, KUCB. But "that didn't go very far," Kelty said.

Meanwhile, lawmakers will be forced to pay higher prices at the money-losing legislative lounge, where a chef with a culinary degree dishes out home-cooked meals.

In the past, the Capitol canteen has lost $20,000 a month as it sold dishes like a $4.50 bowl of salmon stew and a $9 crispy chicken breast with sweet potato gratin. Half a sandwich, with chips, was $4.

Lawmakers say the lounge is set up to save them time, given their busy schedules.

Anchorage Republican Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, who has authority over the lounge as incoming chair of the House Rules Committee, issued a memo Wednesday setting out the increases "to be more in line with prices on the outside."

Lunches will cost $11 instead of $9. Dinners will increase nearly 50 percent, to $13 from $9. Scones will spike to $3 from $2, though muffins will not budge from their current $2 price and neither will the $4 small salad.

"We have a fiscal problem on our hands," LeDoux said in a phone interview. "If everybody else takes a hit, I kind of felt like the Legislature needed to. I believe in leading by example."

LeDoux said she didn't know how much extra cash her plan would generate, though she said that by next year, she may want the lounge to pay for itself.

"This year, we're just going to do things a little bit more gradually," she said. "And this seemed to be a good start."

Anchorage Republican Sen. Kevin Meyer, the incoming Senate Rules Committee chair and outgoing Senate president, said he disagreed with the approach from LeDoux, his House counterpart.

He said he would have preferred to reduce the lounge's labor costs, arguing that higher prices will be self-defeating by driving down business.

But LeDoux has unilateral power over the lounge, based on a system that passes control between the Senate and House every two years.

"Chips are a dollar in the vending machine, and she's going up to a dollar-fifty," Meyer said. "So why would you raise that 50 percent when people can walk across the hall and get their chips? Which I'm sure they will."

Kelty, the Unalaska mayor, had a suggestion for how lawmakers should handle the crab cutbacks and more expensive meals.

"We're the groundfish capital of the world — eat cod and pollock," Kelty said. "That's our bread and butter, anyway."

Nathaniel Herz

Nathaniel Herz is a contributor and former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He’s been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at ADN and Alaska Public Media. He’s reported around the state and loves cross-country skiing.