Last week, the Legislature hit the ground running with committees meeting throughout the week.
On Jan. 21, the first day of session, the House Transportation Committee held a hearing on the importance of the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS), the impact the current lack of service is having on communities, and the urgent need for more funding. The Alaska Municipal League stood in solidarity and the committee heard invited municipal testimony from Kodiak, Cordova, Seldovia, Homer, Haines, Skagway, Wrangell, Gustavus, Angoon, Pelican, Unalaska, Petersburg, and Anchorage.
To watch a recording of that meeting, type the following link into your web browser: https://bit.ly/38GZ1wp.
Mayors, city managers and assembly members travelled from around the state to provide impassioned testimony in support of restoring ferry service. The municipality of Anchorage, although not an AMHS port city, spoke strongly of the benefits the system provides to Anchorage residents and area businesses. According to the Legislative Information Office, AMHS hearings last year set an all-time record for the number of testifiers per hearing (all the testimony was in support) Last week’s committee meeting was another example of our communities making their case, and making it well, on the necessity of AMHS.
With all of that, I am deeply saddened to report that in a vote taken during Joint Session last Friday, the Legislature failed to override the Governor’s $5 million veto to AMHS and $69 million veto to K-12 schools. There were many other vetoes deserving of an override but, collectively, it was decided that those two rose above the rest in their urgency and likelihood of success. The vote was 37 yays in favor of an override with 20 nays opposed. I was an emphatic “yes” vote. There was a lot of passionate debate on behalf of K-12 education, low municipal taxes, and the importance of ferry service. To watch a recording of the Floor proceedings, the debate, and the vote, please search for the Jan. 24 Joint Session at https://www.ktoo.org/gavel/archive/
I am very disappointed that we fell short of the necessary 45 votes. It certainly wasn’t for a lack of effort by coastal legislators, communities, or the public. Community and public engagement on ferry service has been unparalleled. Further, if you look at the vote count and listen to the comments on the Floor, there is solid AMHS support from a lot of interior legislators.
In my mind, this situation clearly illustrates the need to lower Alaska’s veto override threshold. Most states require a two-thirds majority vote from the Legislature to override a governor’s veto, while some only require a simple majority. Although Alaska does have a two-thirds threshold for overriding the veto of legislation, we are the only state in the country that requires a three-quarters majority vote to override an appropriations bill veto. This vests a tremendous amount of power in our Executive Branch and allows a relatively small number of Legislators to block an override attempt. In an election or other vote before the Legislature, 37-20 would be considered a powerful mandate yet, in this instance, the vote outright failed. There are two pieces of legislation this year, HJR 15 and SJR 14, that seek to amend our State’s constitution to require a two-thirds majority on appropriations bills.
It is worth noting that several new developments late last week resulted in losing some key “yes” votes ahead of Friday morning’s session. Shortly after the joint session was announced, the administration made it known to the Legislature that it would include a $12.5 million request for AMHS funding in the forthcoming supplemental in February. Further, AMHS management has recently been stating that even if the $5 million veto were overturned, maintenance and other issues would prevent the funding from affecting service levels this winter. This information, regardless of its accuracy, was specifically referenced during Floor debate by some members as their reason for voting no. Would we have reached 45 votes absent these claims? Probably not, but I firmly believe we would have reached 40.
Regarding the information’s accuracy, I will simply say the timing and intended use of the supplemental request versus the override are not comparable. It is my understanding the $12.5 million supplemental request is for maintenance, retrofits, and absorbing the cost of the recent strike; further, it hasn’t been offered yet and could be months away from passing. To be clear, the $5 million veto was taken from AMHS “operations,” and if overturned, would have immediately gone back into current operations. I think we all agree that vessel maintenance needs to be performed, and it behooves me to point out that a supplemental request would normally contain things like cost overruns and revenue shortfalls due to a strike.
I am glad the administration has committed to a supplemental request, but I suspect that more than $12.5 million will be needed for maintenance. It is a starting point, however, and I look forward to working with DOT during the budget process to identify and fine tune that number. As anyone who owns a boat knows, proper vessel maintenance is just as important as operational funding during the season. As it sits now, eight of 12 ferries are operating due to poor planning and maintenance. There is a substantial amount of money in the Alaska Marine Highway Fund, around $28 million, that was intended for exactly this purpose. There are other funds available to us as well, but one way or another, AMHS needs a significant infusion of dollars for repairs, as well as a specific maintenance plan and accountability to perform maintenance.
In relation to operational dollars, my staff is working with our fiscal analysts and DOT to identify the per-day costs of certain routes and vessels and use that data to formulate a specific plan to restore baseline service. Clearly, AMHS needs an increase to its operating budget in order to provide adequate service and making that happen is my number one priority.
We aren’t going to solve the system’s problems in one year, but my goals for AMHS this session are to identify and fund to most critical maintenance issues, get boats back on the water, pass an increase to the AMHS operations budget that supports a baseline level of winter service, and implement some better accountability and long-term planning at AMHS. Finally, AMHS needs a governance model that is not beholden to the political appointee process. It needs long-term vision, adaptability, and local input, all of which the current structure discourages. That is a much larger conversation, and one that will likely occur over the interim; however, a new form of governance is a critical piece to solving AMHS’s issues. Coastal Alaskans deserve a functioning transportation system just like interior residents enjoy and all of this is part of making that happen.
Although this piece is focused on ferries, the failure to override the school bond debt reimbursement in the same vote was no less disappointing. Ultimately, that veto broke a commitment the State made to local governments and may increase local property taxes in Kodiak. School bond debt reimbursement and the importance of education will be covered in a future update.
Like you, I am disappointed with the result and missed opportunity in the failure to override the Governor’s vetoes. However, this was one battle among many this year and there is nothing left to do but dust ourselves off and stay focused on the session ahead and what we can accomplish in that time. This last year wasn’t easy and the path forward will remain difficult; however, as long as I am your Representative, I will continue to keep you informed, listen, and fight for our coastal way of life.
I will be sure to update you throughout the budget process as I know more on AMHS and other important issues. Remember I work for you, contact me anytime to discuss these or any other issues that are important to you or your family.
Louise Stutes is a State House Representative for District 32. Proudly Serving Kodiak, Cordova, Yakutat, and Seldovia. Stutes can be reached at Rep.Louise.Stutes@akleg.gov or at (907) 465-2487. She can be found on Facebook at facebook.com/RepLouiseStutes at Twitter at twitter.com/RepLouiseStutes