Fuel relief, support for ferries at top of Native priority list

Juneau delegation critical of ferry management, fuel supplement checks

Posted: Thursday, January 12, 2006

Alaska Natives sent a message to two members of Juneau's legislative delegation on Wednesday that they want to see action on fuel cost relief and better support for ferries this session.

The first of several lunch forums in which lawmakers this session will address the Native community was held at the downtown Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall. This week's speakers were Sen. Kim Elton, a Democrat, and Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, a Republican.

Ferry schedules have passengers guessing whether the boat will show up, said Gordon Jackson, director of business and economic development for Tlingit-Haida Central Council.

The legislators agreed that part of the problem is its management.

"I think its management has been training people not to count on the ferries," Elton said.

Douglas Island resident Bob Loescher said besides schedules being hectic, the ferries are underfunded. Alaska's congressional delegation concentrates on winning money for state highways but not the marine transportation system, he said.

The ferry system will need even more dollars to keep it afloat because fuel prices spiked last year, Weyhrauch said. He expects a big debate in a few weeks to get $20 million to $30 million for the system within a supplemental budget for the remainder of this fiscal year.

"We ought to be able to improve it when we have a $1.2 billion surplus," Elton said.

Jackson also said many Native households are hurting at the pumps and struggling to heat their homes with fuel.

"Being an oil state, it doesn't seem right to pay so much for fuel," Loescher said.

A bill from Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, would give every Alaskan who qualified for an Alaska Permanent Fund dividend a $250 check from the budget surplus this year to offset winter fuel costs.

The idea has support from Sen. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon, who represents many of Alaska's rural villages, but Elton and Weyhrauch showed some skepticism.

Elton said the bonus check is not necessary for people such as himself who can afford the increase in fuel costs, and he would like to modify the bill so it helps only the people who really need it.

Weyhrauch said people could trade fiscal constraint for populist ideas.

"To provide an additional $250 check to everyone - who may use it for energy costs or may use it for everything else - will set a precedent we may not be able to cap," he said.

• Andrew Petty can be reached at andrew.petty@juneauempire.com

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