Southeast Rep. Peggy Wilson will try to change the way transportation projects are funded this session. The Wrangell Republican also wants to come up with a system to improve rural hospitals.
Wilson says the state has fallen behind on improving its transportation infrastructure.
“No matter what’s going on in our economy, we have to maintain our roads and … we should be building new ones. And we aren’t doing a very good job of doing that,” Wilson says.
She’s spent several years pushing legislation that would create a transportation endowment fund. It’s passed the House, but not the Senate.
Along with roads, it would fund ferries, harbors and airports. Her priorities include deferred maintenance and roads to natural resources.
“I would like to seed it with one to two billion dollars to begin with. So that we have an endowment that will be there and then we could just use the interest as it grows,” Wilson says. (Hear an earlier report on Wilson’s 2010 Transportation Endowment legislation.)
Continued funding would come from license-plate fees, fuel taxes, vehicle registrations and similar revenue streams.
Wilson wants the transportation endowment to be managed by Alaska’s Permanent Fund. She says it would be overseen by an appointed board or commission.
“And I would like to see a group of people that are non-partisan that would look at what’s best for the state as a whole. And stop the partisan-type thinking, ‘Well, I want it for my district’,” Wilson says.
She’ll face opposition.
Sitka Sen. Bert Stedman, who represents Wilson’s district in the Legislature’s upper chamber, calls the endowment “a dumb idea.” (Hear a report on Stedman’s priorities.)
“I couldn’t think of anything worse to do to hinder our development as far as roads or transportation systems, dealing with the marine highway or anything dealing with DOT, than to create an endowment and turn it over to a bunch of folks who are unelected, basically dominated by the Railbelt,” he says.
Wilson says putting the right people on the fund’s board would take care of that problem.
The Wrangell Republican will try to move the endowment forward through the House Transportation Committee, which she chairs.
She also wants to work with marine highway officials to cut expenses. She wants new ships to have interchangeable parts, and she has some other ideas.
“We have to make sure that our ferry system will run economically [and] that we will have as few workers on it as we can. I know that’s controversial, but we have to realize that the two biggest expenses on our ferry system are the staffing and the fuel,” she says.
The committee will also review Gov. Sean Parnell’s decision to change plans for the next line of ferries. And, there’s the forced resignation of ferry chief Mike Neussl.
Wilson says the governor and other top officials should run such changes through the state Marine Transportation Advisory Board before they become final. The panel only heard after the decisions were made.
She sponsored the legislation that created the board.
“The reason that I put it out to begin with is because we wanted the people of the state to have a say in it, and not just one person,” she says.
Wilson, who serves as House majority whip, is a retired nurse.
She plans to sponsor a bill providing matching grants for rural hospitals. One is in Ketchikan, which is trying to upgrade operating rooms.
“Right now it’s very difficult for them, because it’s pretty ancient. And any surgeon they try to recruit is going to look at it and say, ‘Golly, I want something a lot more modern than that.’ And I think that’s happening all across the state,” she says.
Wilson voted for the controversial oil tax and incentive legislation that passed last year’s House, but not the Senate.
She says she still supports the idea, but worries about some of the details.
“If we do all these tax credit things, how much money is actually going to be coming into the state. We have to be careful there. We don’t want to do so many tax credits that we’re putting the state in jeopardy,” she says.
Redistricting moved Ketchikan and some Prince of Wales Island communities into Wilson’s election boundaries. But it took away Sitka and Petersburg.
She’s cosponsoring legislation requested by the POW-based Southeast Islands School District. It would allow a trial four-day-a-week schedule, which she says would improve attendance and save money.
Alaska has a lot going on right now.
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