SPRING – Connor Dunlap, grounds maintenance specialist with the Sitka Public Works Department, weeds the garden near the Crescent Harbor parking lot this morning. A stretch of record warm weather has crocuses blooming and trees budding. Tuesday's record high temperature for the day was 67 degrees. (Sentinel Photo by James Poulson)

Stedman Gets Post As Finance Co-Chair

By SHANNON HAUGLAND
Sentinel Staff Writer
    Sitka’s Sen. Bert Stedman has been named co-chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee when the next Legislature opens in mid January.
    “It’s a coveted position because of its clout,” Stedman said. “Everything comes through Finance – most everything.”
    He will be overseeing the state operating budget, and Sen. Natasha von Imhof, an Anchorage Republican, will be the other co-chair, in charge of the capital budget and legislation.
    “It doesn’t mean we’ll give our district or region preferential treatment, but it puts me in a good position to know if we get fairly treated and to deal with it,” Stedman said. “It’s not going to save the Marine Highway from fiscal adjustments but it puts me in a good position to work with the administration and other colleagues to make sure we have a transportation system.”
    The upcoming session will be a tough one, given the expected $2 billion shortfall the Legislature will be dealing with for fiscal year 2020.
    The Alaska Marine Highway System, the Permanent Fund and the dividend program, crime issues, and general government costs are among the issues facing the Legislature.
    Marine Highway operations will be affected by the cancellation of the Lynn Canal road north from Juneau, design modifications needed on the new ferries, and an expected multimillion-dollar change order on the construction contract.
    “I’ve encouraged the labor force to work with management to modify work rules,” Stedman said. “We don’t have the numbers in the Legislature to dictate how the Marine Highway will be operated and managed. In the Senate it’s just Gary Stevens (Kodiak) and myself in the majority.”
    Stedman said he expects the new governor, Mike Dunleavy, will take a tough approach in labor negotiations.
    The budget will again be a challenge, with costs going up by $200 million to $300 million just to “keep the budget flat” in 2020, Stedman said.
    “If we want operating costs to go down, we need to start with reductions of $250 million,” he said. “It’s going to be very, very difficult. We would have to do major budget reductions. It’s going to impact programs.”
    Stedman is also interested in legislation to protect the Permanent Fund. In his campaign for governor Dunleavy said he wants to double this year’s $1,600 dividend tor next year’s payout, and give Alaskans a one-time payment of $3,700 to make up for dividend reductions between 2016 and 2018.
    “I would expect him to seriously put his promises to the electorate on the table (with the Legislature) for implementation,” Stedman said. This year’s budget was balanced by dipping into the Permanent Fund reserves, an action that Dunleavy opposed, leaving an unanswered question of where the money will come from to cover spending that the state’s oil income is far short of covering.
    Stedman says he wants to protect the Permanent Fund earnings reserve, now at $18 billion, to prevent it from being spent.
    “It’s not protected. ... I’m working to lock the safe, start spinning the dial and swallow the key,” he said.
    A few options for protecting the earnings reserve include depositing it into the corpus of the Permanent Fund, or limiting the amount that can be taken out of it to fund government and the dividend program through a constitutional amendment.
    Stedman said he also wants to focus on crime during the next session.
    “We’ve seen the problems here in Sitka, with shootings we’ve had in the past year – and there’s been more than one,” he said. “We have issues here, in Ketchikan, on Prince of Wales Island. ...”
    The population centers of the state have problems too: “It’s murder and mayhem in the Railbelt,” Stedman said.
    Many legislators blame Senate Bill 91, which reduced certain felonies to misdemeanors, for part of the problem.
    “I didn’t support Senate Bill 91 – I don’t support treating them with warm, fuzzy gloves,” Stedman said. “I’m more for locking them up, throwing away the key and getting them off the streets. We now have opioid issues in the schools.”
    Stedman was Senate Finance co-chair from 2007 to 2012, but in those years he was overseeing capital projects and legislation. In his new role on the committee starting in January he said his goal will be to have “more transparency and fairness” in the budget.
    “It’ll be fun to do a different role,” he said. “I’ll enjoy that but it’s a workload, no doubt about that. ... It’s nice to have representatives from Southeast in the middle of the decisions and have our voices heard – or you’re crying in the wilderness, outside the door.”


   

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