With the second regular session of the 32nd Alaska Legislature starting Jan. 18, as the southern Kenai Peninsula’s legislators prepared to head to Juneau, they took time the past two weeks to meet with constituents and the Homer City Council to talk about local issues and concerns.
Last Monday, District 31 Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Alaska, met with the council. On Tuesday, she held a town hall meeting at Captain’s Coffee. This Monday, District P Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, also met with the council.
Vance had an informal discussion with the council, with members and Homer Mayor Ken Castner asking questions and also sharing concerns. In response to a question from council member Donna Aderhold on what she saw as her legislative priorities, Vance put the budget at the top of the list. She said she anticipated a budget similar to last year, with action probably happening at the end of the session.
“There probably won’t be any rock-star moves until the very end,” Vance said.
Vance acknowledged the need to come up with a workable fiscal plan.
“There’s no more road to kick the can down,” she said. “It’s been three years since we’ve been on this continuous loop, this ‘Groundhog Day,’” Vance added, referencing the Bill Murray movie about a man who keeps repeating the same day.
Castner said Homer and other cities in the Alaska Municipal League have concerns about the state balancing its budget by passing on costs to boroughs and cities.
“Every time we go around this loop, the cities lose something. We lost $350,000 a year in jail support,” he said. “… At your level you have a layer of politics involved that really baffles us. … It would be helpful if you find a way to give us some fiscal certainty.”
Council member Rachel Lord asked Vance if she saw any new revenue solutions. Vance said the top two were a state income tax and a state sales tax, but that she ran in opposition to an income tax. She said statewide polls are more in support of an income tax and that the AML doesn’t support a state sales tax.
“I’m wanting more creative measures,” Vance said. “… What else are we not talking about? … If everything can be adjusted a little bit, I think that’s something Alaskans can support.”
Vance also spoke to the council about her House Bill 52, a bill that would, as she put it, “cure” a land disposal issue with the Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery operated by Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association. HB 52 would remove the hatchery and about 125 acres around it from Kachemak State Park, designating the land as general state land. Vance said legal decisions would make the hatchery incompatible with the park, since the lease with CIAA could be considered a “disposal,” and thus not allowable. A draft management plan for the park also says the hatchery is incompatible with the park.
HB 52 also would add to the park about 270 acres of state land in the Cottonwood-Eastland area on the north shore of Kachemak Bay. Aderhold and Lord questioned if that was an equal exchange.
“It there other land that could be purchased and transferred into the park?” Aderhold asked. “You would be basically replacing like with like.”
“It is fantastic land,” Lord said of the lagoon. “I don’t see it being a great switch in lieu of this side of the bay.”
As part of a strategy to get public support for HB 52, Vance has been pushing how the Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery also supports the China Poot Bay sockeye dipnet and sport fishery. CIAA collects sockeye breeding stock at the hatchery, matures them in freshwater net bags and then collects eggs and milt. At its Trail Lake hatchery near Seward, CIAA then raises the eggs to smolt, brings them back to the lagoon to imprint and releases them at China Poot Lake. Vance started an online petition to support the China Poot Bay fishery.
At the council worksession, she said Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commercial Fishing Division Director Sam Rabung has said that without the Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery there would not be a China Poot Bay fishery. She later sent the council a link to the Dec. 8 Kachemak Bay State Park Citizens Advisory Board meeting where Rabung made that claim.
“I guess I’d be curious as to the rationale as to why that’s the case?” Lord asked.
Council member Jason Davis noted that when the Tutka Bay hatchery had been closed, the China Poot Bay sockeye fishery stocking still happened.
Castner said Vance should talk to CIAA.
“I’m not sure if there are not other areas,” he said. “… They’re (CIAA) working with the regional planning team on stock choices.”
In a follow-up phone call, Rabung said the issue with the China Poot sockeye salmon is complicated. When the hatchery was closed, ADF&G used wild stock from Tustumena Lake in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge to raise hatchery smolt. A legal ruling that commercial activity like that could not happen in federal wild lands later prohibited that. ADF&G also does not mix hatchery stock that is genetically not compatible with area wild stock. The new source stock for the China Poot Bay red salmon came from English Bay Lake near Nanwalek, a take the village allowed on a one-time basis.
Wild stock could be taken from English Bay, but that would require permission with the village, something Nanwalek people have said they won’t allow. The CIAA hatchery at Port Graham could be used, except it doesn’t have enough fresh water. Sockeye need fresh water to spawn and produce eggs. Any sockeye stocking program would require funding, either from fisheries taxes or another source. The pink salmon hatchery and fishery CIAA runs helps support the China Poot sockeye hatchery operations.
“It needs the pink salmon program to support it,” Rabung said.
Considering all the challenges, finding an alternative to running the China Poot sockeye fishery without the Tutka Bay hatchery presents “insurmountable challenges,” Rabung said.
“To do it somewhere other than Tutka is going to cost money to do something new,” he said.
During Vance’s town hall meeting on Tuesday with about 50 people attending, she announced new recommendations for HB 52 after receiving public opposition to carving out land from Kachemak Bay State Park, including a recently passed resolution from the Kachemak Bay Citizens Advisory Board opposing the bill.
Vance repeatedly explained that the Alaska Department of Natural Resources believes carving out the hatchery land from Kachemak Bay State Park is the only way to solve the legal land dispute. However, several community members at the meeting said there had to be another way. Through conversations with DNR, the legal department and the Homer community, Vance announced three possibilities for the bill in order to solve everyone’s concerns.
“I have three ideas out there,” Vance said. “The bill as it currently stands that adds the three parcels and carves out the lagoon. The second option that I am looking at is much like what my first bill introduced — to declare the hatchery of compatible use and include the three parcels that the park has been wanting. Declaring it of compatible use would continue the operations as it has all these 40 years. It would still be in the park, it would just say yes, legally, it’s allowed.”
“The third option is what DNR says they favor is by carving the lagoon out and the land the hatchery sits on would be general DNR-use land, but it would have reverter language that says if fish and game no longer continues the hatchery operation there, that land would revert back to the state park automatically,” she continued.
The legal department has already prepared a draft of the third option for Vance.
“I want to first solve the legal land issue that brought this problem into existence and then ultimately meet the needs of what our community wants,” Vance said.
Additional concerns that were brought up was the efficiency of the legislature and being productive during the upcoming session, lack of affordable longterm housing in Homer, the potential constitutional convention and upcoming construction at the Homer airport.
While discussing her goals for the upcoming session, Vance read a text message from a constituent, which she said encompassed her values and priorities in one message.
“Number one, protect the PFD. I’m a Jay Hammond-PFDer. Number two, budget — continue to fight to get the spending under control. Number three, fight for our fishermen, families and their livelihoods. Number four, keep Kachemak Bay pristine. Number five, preserve our Bill of Rights and our freedoms. Number six, fight for state’s rights and push back of the overreach of the federal government.”
“This really encompasses so much of what I hear from you on a regular basis,” Vance continued. “If this is different or if you have any more to add, I want to hear because this is my heart and this is what I take with me to Juneau.”
Stevens, facing internet connectivity issues in Kodiak, met with the council via Zoom to present his priorities for the upcoming legislative session, including the state budget and Permanent Fund dividend, and answered the council members’ questions in a roundtable style meeting.
Stevens shared his concern with the governor’s budget proposal, which he said uses more federal monies to fund state programs that can lead to financial difficulty in the future.
“The big issue, of course, is going to be the budget,” Stevens said. “The governor has submitted a budget … that is really using every penny that’s around and not leaving much for the future. I do have some concerns about that.”
Stevens used the Alaska Marine Highway System as an example as it generally needs $20 million in funding from the state to operate, but Gov. Dunleavy’s proposed budget only allocates $5 million with the rest supplemented by federal funds.
“The concern I have there is if you start using federal funds, the next year it’s going to be even harder to fully fund that budget,” he said.
In addition to the budget, the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend is also a source for potential contention this session, Stevens said, as Gov. Dunleavy has proposed a 50-50 split of the Permanent Fund to provide a higher dividend to residents and fund government operations. Stevens remained steadfast in his belief that overdrawing the Permanent Fund would be detrimental to future Alaskans.
“I think the dividend is important and we always need to have a dividend,” he said. “But we don’t want to damage the fund by overdrawing it.”
Stevens also addressed the potential constitutional convention that Alaskans will have the opportunity to vote on this November, sharing that there will need to be an educational process to explain how much time and effort goes into hosting the constitutional convention if voted for. The public has the opportunity to vote for a constitutional convention in order to amend the State of Alaska Constitution every 10 years.
However, hosting the convention would take at least three years to approve, elect members of the convention, redraft the constitution and present it to the public to be voted on, Stevens explained.
“That is an issue that I think is extremely important, but it’s not immediate. It’ll take a long time to solve,” Stevens said. “Whatever happens, there will be a big educational process to make sure people understand three years from now what that new constitution entails.”
Both Stevens and Vance said during their meetings that they were not taking a stance for or against a constitutional convention and would allow the people to decide what to do.
The Homer City Council received the opportunity to ask the senator about their own concerns, including the future deep water harbor, education, COVID-19 mandates and more, during the meeting.
Council member Aderhold asked Stevens where the legislature stood on Homer’s $3 million deep water harbor project, which needs a $750,000 match from the state before the city can propose a $1.5 million match from the federal government. The City of Homer has already allocated $750,000 for the initial match by the state.
Castner also chimed in on the importance of the deep water harbor, asking the senator to take the project into consideration.
“I would really hope the state could find some state money to match our money so it shows that there is common interest from the state and the city when we do go after federal grants,” Castner said.
“We’ll do our very best to try and get any funds we can into that harbor,” Stevens said, “It’s an important issue and we’ve got lots of money this year, so there is no reason why some funds won’t be put to that good use. … If there ever was a year to get money into that harbor project, this is the year to do that with all of the federal monies coming in.”
With a very timely concern about the state’s lack of reliable internet connection, council member Caroline Venuti asked Stevens if the lack of steady basic WiFi capabilities was going to be addressed during the upcoming session.
“Are you planning on addressing this non-equitable WiFi in our state during the legislature? I know that there will be federal funds available, but to make sure that … especially rural areas can have equal access to certain services, such as Zoom, of the internet, which really holds them back,” Venuti asked.
Stevens assured the council that new federal money was being allocated to enhance the state’s broadband access, even in more remote areas, and it would be an important topic this session.
Stevens did recognize the inefficiency of the legislature during the last session and shared he hopes they will be able to move past their differences to get work done.
“We didn’t get much legislation done last year,” Stevens said. “… We just were not able to solve some of the big issues that we faced this year.”
“It’ll be a stressful year for everyone, I believe, in the legislature as well as in the city and borough, so we’ll try to make sure we come up with a reasonable way to run our government and hopefully not have to go to an income tax and not have to overdraw the Permanent Fund,” Stevens said.