The 29th Alaska State Legislature convenes on Jan. 19 with lawmakers tackling the state’s $3.5 billion deficit. Democrat Sam Kito III represents the Upper Lynn Canal in the state House. He spoke with KHNS’s Jillian Rogers earlier this week about the upcoming session. This is part one of a two-part story.
The biggest hurdle this session is going to be the state’s current financial situation, Kito says right off the bat. There’s no question about that. But he’s still optimistic that Haines and Skagway will be taken care, somewhat. He says the $1 million in Gov. Bill Walker’s proposed budget for the waste water treatment facility in Haines is likely safe from the chopping block.
“As the number one project on the municipal water and sewer list, I think there’s a pretty good chance that project will stay,” said Kito from from Anchorage last week.
He called the governor’s budget plan courageous. He says, like most lawmakers, he supports some ideas and questions others.
“Some of the issues that I’m concerned about are, first of all, the $100 million in cuts and taking pretty much all of the early childhood education money out of the Department of Education gives me a great concern. I think the biggest thing we can do for the our future of our state is provide for education of our children. And one of the biggest things we can do that has been shown to have positive effects is implement early childhood education.”
Gov. Walker’s proposed budget includes a plan to restructure to the Permanent Fund. Kito says that too raised some concerns.
“There is some question in my mind about how the switch of the dividend from the permanent calculation to the royalty calculation is sustainable, so I’d like to see some numbers on that. I also have a concern about the amount of revenue the governor is anticipating from the sovereign wealth fund. It seems like a lot of money to come out of our permanent fund.”
Kito says he believes that ultimately a revenue stream will come out of Permanent Fund earnings, but probably not as much as the governor anticipates.
With more cuts on the way for the Department of Transportation’s maintenance and operations – which includes ferry operations and winter road maintenance – Kito says he has concerns about the continuation of large-scale megaprojects. Developments like the Ambler road project, the Juneau Access Project and several more were halted by Walker last year, but have since started eking forward again toward licensing and environmental impact statements.
“If we increase the amount of infrastructure, we’re increasing the maintenance obligation for the departments. And to do that while those departments are still being pressured to decrease their operational costs, I think the math there doesn’t work out for me. If you have more responsibility and less money, that just means you’re going to be spread that much thinner.”
As for the Alaska Marine Highway System, Kito says he would like to see a strategic planning effort from the DOT that would identify a basic level of service.
“It is very important to Southeast and especially to the Northern Lynn Canal, so I do think it’s one of those things that we need to work really hard at supporting, maintaining and not taking apart,” he said. “If the department had a goal and was working toward making a cost-recovery level of 40 or 50 percent, which is has in the past, than that actually creates a general fund savings for the state.”
Kito says finding a resolution to the fiscal state is not only the biggest challenge, it’s also the component he’s most looking forward to. He says it’s the most important thing legislators can do for Alaskans.
In part of two of KHNS’s interview with Democratic Rep. Sam Kito III, he talks about specific issues facing Haines and Skagway. These are ongoing concerns that he’s hopeful will get some traction in the upcoming legislative session.
Rep. Kito says he’s looking forward to the challenge of finding a resolution to Alaska’s budget woes, but he’s also ready to broach some issues and projects specific to Haines and Skagway.
When Kito visited Skagway in July, he heard concerns from members of the Skagway Traditional Council about Taiya River erosion and the need to protect some early Native graves in Dyea as a result.
Kito says discussions with the National Park Service about what to do are continuing.
“We don’t have any resolution to that issue yet, but they are looking into it and they are trying to come up with suggestions for alternatives.”
In Haines, Kito says he’s working with State Parks and the Department of Transportation about how to manage the Chilkoot River Corridor more effectively.
A bear-viewing platform and other infrastructure have been in the works for several years, and while the design is done and money from the state is there, the project has stalled.
“That project needs some coordination between DOT and Parks in order to have the right of way be usable. So, what we’re trying to facilitate is a transfer of the right of way from the Department of Transporation to the parks division so they can manage that right of way as park access and still provide for DOT to do necessary maintenance to the road as needed.”
He says he’s also striving to restore the Haines’ state forester position to a year-round job. Budget cuts forced one forester out of work in 2015, with the second position cut significantly.
“At this point, we’re just trying to stabilize funding for that one forester because there are still operations taking place that definitely need a person present in Haines.”
Community revenue sharing is safe for now, Kito says, with Walker allocating $50 million in his proposed budget for the 200 or so communities that rely on it. This year, the Haines Borough received just over $600,000 while Skagway got around $430,000. The program was anticipated to get cut significantly, but this year, it paid out $57 million. Kito says he’s hoping the total will get bumped up.
“Gov. Walker has made a commitment to stabilizing revenue sharing and has a goal of stabilizing revenue share at about the $60 million appropriation mark. I support that.”
But, so far, Kito says, there’s no appropriation to boost it from the currently- proposed $50 million.
“But I’m hopeful that the governor will live up his commitment that revenue sharing is stable and stable at $60 million.”
He says revenue sharing supports small communities and can be the difference between towns having municipal government or not.
“I think it’s very important to have revenue sharing so we can support out local governments throughout Alaska.”