Stedman says hydro funds tight, otter bill will change
There won’t be many appropriations for Southeast Alaska projects this legislative session. That’s the word from Sitka Sen. Bert Stedman, who represents most of the region outside Juneau, Petersburg and Skagway.
The Legislature put millions of dollars toward regional hydroprojects in past sessions.
Stedman says funding is usually linked to energy appropriations for Southcentral and the Interior. But the former co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee doesn’t expect that to happen this time around.
“I don’t see a pressing need this year that the Railbelt’s going to push forward with any energy projects, at least that I’m aware of. So I think it’s going to be pretty difficult for rural Alaska just to come up with its own energy plan and get the votes to do anything,” he says.
Gov. Sean Parnell’s capital budget includes $10 million toward the Susitna-Watana dam north of Anchorage. That’s a small fraction of its $5.2 billion overall cost estimate.
But there was nothing for Sitka’s Blue Lake, Ketchikan’s Swan Lake, or any other Panhandle hydroproject. Parnell said lawmakers could convince him to add other projects. And the Legislature reworks that budget.
But Stedman says the Blue Lake Dam, which is being raised, is unlikely to get more money this year.
“It is more challenging to get funding for a project that’s already going to get built or is being built than it is to put together a financial package before the construction contracts are let,” he says.
The Sitka Republican says other district projects needing funding include the Ketchikan Shipyard and Angoon’s sewer system.
He says the state also needs to put more money aside to replace more of the Alaska Marine Highway System’s aging ships.
“If we diddly-daddle around, by the time we get these Alaska Class Ferries built and we get the Tustumena replaced, if we don’t in my opinion have a (long-term) fund set up and we continually put away, say, $50 million into marine replacement, by the time we get these first ships built, the rest of these boats will be another 10 years older and they’re already old as we speak.
Stedman last year proposed a bounty on sea otters, which eat shellfish Southeast divers and crabbers harvest. His bill brought strong criticism from environmental groups. And the federal agency managing otters said it would violate marine-mammal-protection law.
The legislation is still in play. Stedman says he wants to find a different way to support Native hunters, the only people allowed to harvest otters and process their pelts.
“I need to sit down with the Sealaska Heritage (Institute) and have a few more meetings in Juneau to work out what we’re actually going to change it to — if it’s going to end up trying to be marketing assistance or tanning assistance or something else,” he says. “But the chances of the bill going forward as it’s written, without being rewritten to take out the bounty, is slim.”
Stedman’s Senate district includes Ketchikan, Wrangell, Kake, Craig and other towns where timber used to be a significant part of the economy.
He says he supports the governor’s attempt to get 2 million acres of the Tongass National Forest turned over to Alaska.
“If the state was to take basically all of northern Prince of Wales (Island), outside the Native land selections and homesites and stuff like that, that would give us a timber base that we could run a fairly good-sized economic generation off of,” he says.
Stedman continues to oppose House Bill 77, which would speed permitting for resource development projects.
He says Alaska needs some limits on those who want to block mines and similar ventures. But he says the bill goes too far and was pushed through the Legislature without enough public input.
“We’ll see if we’ll have a more thorough scrubbing or we’re just going to play hardball politics and they’ll do what they can to pick up one vote and pass the bill. But I would expect that bill will get passed in some form by the end of the session,” he says.
The bill made it through the House last year, but came up short in the Senate. Stedman was among those voting no.
The Sitka senator, who’s served for about 11 years, chairs his chamber’s Health and Social Services Committee.
He says the panel will take up items requested by the Parnell administration — but not a lot else.
“I have no intention of just running committee hearings to run committee hearings to entertain people,” he says.
Stedman continues criticizing the governor’s oil and gas production tax, which passed last year. Alaskans will get their say through a referendum later this year.
He says the latest revenue estimates support his view that it’s better to fix it now than later.
“My initial review of these numbers would say the state is basically taking the entire hit. The industry (is) only moving negative $300 million while we’re moving negative $3.3 billion,” he says.
Stedman is one of six legislators representing Southeast Alaska.
Hear what other Southeast lawmakers want to happen during the session:
More links will be posted as reports are produced.