Like most state lawmakers, Juneau Sen. Dennis Egan expects Alaska’s multibillion dollar deficit to be the number one issue during the upcoming legislative session.
Egan says his focus will be protecting the interests of the capital city and the other Southeast communities he represents when the 29th Alaska Legislature gavels in next week.
Egan was Juneau’s mayor in the late 1990s when oil prices bottomed out at $9 a barrel, so he’s been through something like this before.
“We’re a government town, and our property valuations went in the toilet,” he recalls. “It was very hard trying to make budgets with severe declines in property tax revenue, and people were very concerned and skittish, moving out of town.”
The price of oil is under $50 a barrel this week. With the vast majority of Alaska’s unrestricted general fund revenue coming from oil taxes, the projected budget deficit has grown to more than $3 billion dollars. Egan says that’s going to be the biggest challenge for lawmakers during this year’s session.
“It’s going to be very difficult trying to figure out how we control spending and what projects we fund and take away from, and which departments we control spending on,” he says. “I mean, it’s back to the bad old days.”
New Gov. Bill Walker has already made some attempts to deal with the financial crisis – submitting a bare bones capital budget and putting a hold on new spending for six state megaprojects, including the Juneau Access road.
Egan says he’s fine with those moves. But he’s disappointed at this week’s news that Walker asked for the resignation of Transportation Commissioner Pat Kemp, who disagreed with the decision to halt spending on the Juneau road.
“I understand why the governor did it, but I just hate to see Pat Kemp go,” Egan says. “And it has nothing to do with Juneau Access. Pat was born and raised in Juneau, he’s a transportation engineer.”
Overall, Egan says he’s happy with the new administration. Walker hails from Valdez, the same town as Egan’s dad, Bill Egan, the state’s first governor.
“We haven’t had many governors, we’re a young state, and I think that’s cool,” he says, before adding with a laugh, “I used to be able to call him Billy. I can’t do that anymore, though.”
Egan says he’s glad Walker is a big supporter of Juneau as the capital city, something that might actually come into play this session. Sen.-elect Bill Stoltze of Chugiak has talked about introducing a bill to move the legislature to Anchorage. Egan says he’s already working his colleagues, trying to convince them it’s a bad idea.
“It’s a divisive issue. It pits regions of the state against each other,” he says. “And there are legislators that are just not, they don’t even want it brought up, especially in tight budget times.”
One person he hasn’t talked to is Stoltze.
“I’ll let him talk to me,” Egan says.
This will be Egan’s first session as a member of the Alaska Senate minority. He was appointed to his seat at the end of the 2009 session, and was a member of the bipartisan majority caucus that ruled the Senate from 2010 to 2012. He was one of two Democrats to join the Republican-led majority of the past two sessions. He wasn’t invited to join the new majority, but Egan thinks he can still be effective.
“The legislative move issue is a perfect example,” he says. “I’ve been meeting with majority members on that specific issue.”
Egan plans to introduce two pieces of legislation this year, both of which he’s offered previously. The Senate passed his bill in 2012 to allow public employees a choice of retirement plans, but it has never had a hearing in the House. He’ll also reintroduce a bill that would make Juneau’s House of Wickersham the official residence of the lieutenant governor. That measure passed the legislature last year as part of a larger package that was vetoed by former Gov. Sean Parnell due to a technical error.
Besides Juneau, Egan’s district includes Haines, Skagway, Gustavus, and Excursion Inlet.
*Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story said Tenakee Springs is in Sen. Egan’s district. It’s actually in Sen. Bert Stedman’s district.