Ferry system eyes cutbacks

Senate budget would chop Southeast winter ferry service by half

Posted: Friday, April 26, 2002

Winter ferry service throughout Southeast would be cut by about 50 percent under the 2003 state budget that was headed to the Senate floor late this morning, a state official says.

Senate Democrats, calling the budget "ridiculous" and "pathetic," prepared amendments for about $50 million in additional spending they say is needed to maintain existing service levels for the Alaska Marine Highway System, K-12 education, the University of Alaska, public safety, and drug and alcohol treatment programs, among other areas.

Following the budget wrap-up in the Senate Finance Committee late Thursday night, Republican Co-Chairman Dave Donley of Anchorage issued a statement: "We in the Senate majority were committed to producing an operating budget which addressed the crucial services of the state, including education, public safety and public health, while holding general fund spending to a lower level than last year. This budget lives up to that commitment."

One deputy commissioner faxed Donley's news release to the Empire's Capitol bureau with this handwritten notation: "B.S."

The impact to ferry service would be especially dramatic, officials say.

The Senate's operating budget has $39.1 million for the Alaska Marine Highway System. While that's an $11 million increase in general funds from the current year, it would provide the ferry system less than the $45.7 million sought by Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles. The depletion of budget reserves, higher fuel costs and impacts from the Columbia fire contributed to the governor's request for a substantial boost.

The $6.6 million that the Senate's not funding will be noticeable to all ferry users, according to Bob Doll, Southeast region director of the Department of Transportation.

For example, he said the Malaspina dayboat operation in the Upper Lynn Canal, linking Juneau, Haines and Skagway through the summer, would be discontinued after this year. The Taku would be sidelined during the winter, affecting communities from Prince Rupert, British Columbia, to Skagway.

A summer-only surcharge of 10 percent on passengers and cabins and 5 percent on vehicles would become year-round, and on-board food prices would go up.

The Aurora would be redeployed to Prince William Sound ahead of schedule, reducing service in the southern Panhandle. That will be particularly noticeable when the LeConte is taken off-line for maintenance in October, Doll said.

Republican legislators have accused the administration of "Washington Monument" cuts - that is, attempts to rally public support by proposing visible, draconian cuts that really aren't necessary.

Doll said he's not doing that. "My instructions were not to say anything to the Legislature you're not prepared to do. There are no monuments here."

It's not just a regional issue, said Sen. Kim Elton, a Juneau Democrat. He noted that the No. 1 destination of ferry passengers is Anchorage.

Senate Democrats, unlike the minority in the House, weren't willing to let the $2.27 billion budget go without at least making an attempt to amend it. Minority Leader Johnny Ellis of Anchorage said that four "bundled" amendments would address education, public safety, drug and alcohol treatment, and economic development and transportation. Those amendments are aimed solely at maintaining current service, he said.

"I don't think anybody here is suggesting we need to go out and across-the-board spend more money," Elton said. "We're not even talking about trying to accommodate more Alaskans."

Senate Democrats and Knowles' budget director, Annalee McConnell, said the claims in Donley's news release consistently overstated the budget's generosity. For example, they said budgets for public safety, corrections, suicide prevention and alcohol-related initiatives don't meet the Legislature's own goals.

The $8 million in additional funding for the university still leaves the system $1.5 million short of the amount needed to maintain current services by funding labor contracts and meeting other rising expenses, said Sen. Lyman Hoffman of Bethel. The purchasing power in K-12 education continues to erode, with current funding at 73.5 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars compared with 10 years ago, Elton said.

Bill McAllister can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com.

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