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Alaska state government is scheduled to shut down on July 1. Here's what that might look like.

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published June 8, 2017

Alaska's ferries, Division of Motor Vehicles operations and the 2 1/2 million fish housed at state hatcheries could be among the casualties if the Legislature fails to prevent a state government shutdown July 1, according to a laundry list of impacts released Thursday by Gov. Bill Walker's administration.

State park rangers and visitor centers, payment of unemployment insurance claims and summer road construction could be affected. So could substance abuse treatment inside and outside state prisons, the operations of the state museum in Juneau and even the sale of cigarettes and pull tabs.

Then there's the billion-dollar salmon fishery in Bristol Bay, where the early July peak could coincide with the start of the shutdown.

That's still three weeks away, and legislative leaders insist they're engaged in productive conversations on a state budget deal and a broader fiscal plan to fix Alaska's $2.5 billion deficit.

But Walker, in a brief news conference Thursday in Juneau, told reporters that his administration doesn't have the "luxury" of counting on a deal to emerge. He announced he would set up an "incident command structure," headed by Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth, to make sure the state is prepared for a shutdown.

"We're not trying to overreact," Walker said. "But the worst thing we can do is sit back like nothing is going to happen."

Without a budget and its appropriations, Walker said the Alaska Constitution allows his administration to continue to spend money on programs to ensure life, health and safety — but no others. His administration is still trying to determine exactly how that would work, since the definition of such critical services appears to have never been tested in an actual shutdown in Alaska.

"A shutdown would put the state in a constitutional crisis," Lindemuth, the attorney general, said in a prepared statement. "Our constitution clearly says the power to determine where and how to spend money lies with the Legislature. In the face of the Legislature not upholding its constitutional duty, where does that leave state services and programs? That's the question we are working to answer by evaluating every program or service provided by the state."

Walker's 14 executive-branch agencies sent out a string of statements Thursday detailing which programs would likely continue and which would stop.

Services that could be maintained include law enforcement, state prisons, Pioneer Homes and emergency and disaster response, according to the attorney general's office. The office said there's also a "reasonable legal basis" to preserve other constitutionally or federally mandated services that, if stopped even for a short time, would severely affect Alaska's people and economy.

The head of one state agency, Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten, said he's still working with the attorney general's office to determine which department operations could continue without any appropriations July 1 — though he added that no department workers or hardware would be brought in from remote locations before then, contradicting an assertion by one of his employees earlier this week that some field work might stop before July 1.

A constitutional provision requires the Legislature to manage Alaska's natural resources for the "maximum benefit" of its people, and another calls specifically for the management of fish. But they have to be balanced against another section of the Constitution — the one that bans spending money without an appropriation, Cotten said.

"We're working on what we'd be able to do" in the event of a shutdown, he said in a phone interview. "I certainly know that it would cause severe economic distress."

"Salmon don't wait," he added.

Beyond the managers of state fisheries, other programs and services that could be threatened by a shutdown range from the high-profile to the prosaic.

The state crime lab would keep staff for high-priority analysis but could end up with a backlog of requests; Alaska's sex offender registry could be affected, as well as background checks for prospective workers and concealed handgun permits, according to the Department of Public Safety.

The Department of Environmental Conservation's cruise ship monitoring program could be shuttered, as could the issuance of permits for resource development projects and sellers of food.

State-run walrus and bear viewing areas could close, along with state shooting ranges, and the issuing of subsistence permits could be delayed or even shut down completely, according to the Department of Fish and Game.

Preschool programs for low-income children could be jeopardized, as could summer food programs for kids and child support casework, said the Department of Education and Early Development and the Department of Revenue, which manage those services.

And Alaskans might not be able to get marriage and birth certificates, according to the Department of Health and Social Services.

Many of the programs at risk directly or indirectly benefit Alaska's tourism industry, which would be in full swing by the start of a shutdown.

"It would definitely be a huge impact," said Sarah Leonard, president of the Alaska Travel Industry Association, which itself relies on state appropriations for its marketing program. "We're kind of on hold, like many other programs and services — as well as employees and residents of the state."

Also uncertain is what would happen to the $150 million worth of leave time accumulated by unionized state employees. Their contracts require payment of the balance within seven days of a layoff.

In 2015, when lawmakers drew similarly close to a shutdown, public employee unions were working with Walker's administration to ensure that the leave time, not just its cash value, would be preserved, said Dennis Moen, business manager for Public Employees Local 71, which represents 1,800 state workers.

But this year, "no decisions have been made with bargaining units at this time regarding the required leave payout," said Minta Montalbo, a spokeswoman for the Department of Administration.

"As we near closer to June 30, we will address this issue with the unions as necessary," she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the 2½ million fish in state-run hatcheries were salmon. While salmon make up the majority of the fish in hatcheries, the number includes trout, char and grayling.