FORKLIFT LIFT – A massive forklift is hauled out of the water at the Samson Dock Monday evening. The forklift and driver accidentally went into the water on Thursday. The forklift driver was immediately rescued without major injuries. The forklift, however, had to wait until divers, a barge crane and low tide aligned on Monday night. The cause of the mishap is being determined. (Sentinel Photo by James Poulson)

Less State Aid Seen By Sitka Legislators

By SHANNON HAUGLAND
and TOM HESSE
Sentinel Staff Writers
    Sitka’s legislators say they’re ready to get started on their to-do lists when the session opens in Juneau next week.
    Education, social issues and the state’s dwindling revenues are expected to be big items for the second session of Alaska’s 28th Legislature, which opens Tuesday.
    Sen. Bert Stedman, who represents Senate District Q, said working on “energy challenges” is at the top of his list for the district.
    That includes two major hydroelectric projects, Blue Lake in Sitka and Swan Lake near Ketchikan.
    “The chance of an appropriation is small,” he said of the Blue Lake project, which has already received state help. “It’s still an issue of the amount of state help.”
    While other communities may receive 100 percent funding for their projects, Sitka so far has received about $54 million in state funding of the $142 million project. Stedman said if more state funding can be secured, it will help keep Sitka’s electric rates competitive compared to other communities.
    “If Sitka has high energy costs, it’s going to be difficult to compete,” he said.
     Stedman said he will work diligently to secure the final $6 million needed for construction of the Mt. Edgecumbe High School aquatic center, and to fine-tune the operations budget.
    He said a rough estimate for running the pool at the state-run boarding school is $1 million a year, but a more precise figure is needed before the project gets the blessing of the state Office of Management and Budget. He said he will be working closely with OMB as well as the Department of Education on the project.
    “I’d like to get it solved this session,” Stedman said.
    Also on Stedman’s list is construction of a driving course for the Alaska Public Safety Academy in the Indian River Valley. The state purchased the land from the Baranof Island Housing Authority and is now awaiting a Corps of Engineers permit to develop the wetlands.
    On the House side of things, Sitka’s Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins said he doesn’t expect a whole lot of money to be spent this term on capital projects. Gov. Sean Parnell released his budget in December and it came in $1 billion less than the current year’s $13.4 billion.
    Parnell has repeatedly said he leaves wiggle room in the budget for legislators to add funding as they see fit, but that number has gone down the last few years, Kreiss-Tomkins said. The state capital project budget was $1.1 billion in 2012, and declined to $400 million last year. Kreiss-Tompkins said he expects the number to continue to drop.
    He said there was a feeling in the Legislature that after last year’s economic focus, the legislature would turn its attention to social issues.
    “Part of that is because the state is running a gargantuan budget deficit. It’s not like we can cut taxes to oil companies any more, so we can’t do much with money cause we don’t have any money,” Kreiss-Tomkins quipped. “Social issues are low cost and high controversy.”
    Those issues, which include abortion and same-sex marriage, will likely be lumped in with education and Native Alaskan issues like sea otter management, which both Stedman and Kreiss-Tomkins have an interest in. 
    Stedman said he will continue his work on a bill designed to thin the population of sea otters, which has been increasing at a rate of 13 percent in Southeast. Commercial shellfish fisherman complain that the otters are decimating Dungeness crab and other shellfish.
    Only Alaska coastal Native people are allowed to hunt the federally regulated species, but their harvest is not enough to keep the animals in check. Stedman originally proposed the hunting of sea otters, but that idea ran afoul of federal regulations and wildlife management groups.
    His latest bill calls for the state to provide help with marketing, tanning and sales of sea otter skins in order to provide an incentive for harvesters. Stedman said he’s hoping the bill will pass this session. “There’s quite a bit of support in the state,” he said. “There’s a lot of support to deal with the rapid growth of the sea otter population.”
    For his part, Kreiss-Tomkins is involved with a working group set up by the governor that deals partly with the issue of harvesting sea otters.
    “It’s been an area of high interest for us to develop the Native handicraft,” he said. Federal law requires sea otter pelts to be “significantly altered” before they can be sold.
    The group is hoping to encourage the spread of techniques for working with otter pelts and also to have authorities change the definition of “significantly altered.” Ideally, Kreiss-Tomkins said, the extra attention can help fulfill the intention of existing laws while increasing the economic benefit to the Native community and controlling the otter population.
    “This could be a real driver for rural economic development,” he said. 
    As for education, Stedman anticipates that his position on the education committee will keep him busy, since there are so many issues to deal with. Those include proposals to reform the education system in the Railbelt.
    The Southeast senator said he also has larger budget concerns, including the ongoing problems with the state’s Teachers Retirement System and Public Employee Retirement System. The retirement accounts are underfunded by an estimated $12 billion, and Stedman has hopes that the Legislature and governor’s office can put some funds aside to start addressing the problem.
    Parnell has said he’s willing to put $2 billion to $5 billion into that account.
    “A fair amount is needed to make a difference,” Stedman said. “To fix the problem you need to put substantial money in it. If you don’t put money aside, we’ll be in a heck of a world of hurt when we need it and don’t have it.”
    Kreiss-Tomkins is hoping to make the state’s spending on pensions, and everything else for that matter, a little clearer to the public. He said one goal is to get the Legislature to approve a bill that was just released that will require additional information be sent out with the tax-information for Permanent Fund Dividend recipients that will basically serve as a “receipt for government spending.”
    It would be a short document explaining where the state’s budget is going, he said.
    “The idea is that the people will have a little bit better understanding of how the government is spending the public’s money,” Kreiss-Tomkins said.
    When asked about the voter initiative proposition on oil taxes that will be on the August primary ballot, Stedman said he didn’t know what his role will be in the debate. The proposition calls for repeal of an act passed by the Legislature that provides a tax break for North Slope oil producers. Stedman broke from the Legislature’s Republican majority that passed the oil tax bill, called SB21, last year.
    “I’m working on getting a more intimate understanding of the structure of the bill itself,” said Stedman. “Nothing I’ve seen so far (has) changed my decision. ... I’m in favor of the repeal.”
    Kreiss-Tomkins has also expressed support for repeal.
    “The oil tax cut is just killing the state budget,” he said.
    But at the same time, Stedman said he’s not in favor of going back to the previous tax structure, known as ACES, which also needs work, he said.
    “We went from one extreme to the other,” Stedman said of the two oil tax laws. But he said SB21 is “out of balance on the people’s side of the table.”

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