The new legislative session starts in two weeks, and with the price of crude oil continuing its free-fall, Alaska's senators and representatives will be scrambling to make ends meet.
“Yeah, it's going to be a very tough year as I look at the budget,” said District P Senator Gary Stevens of Kodiak. “I'm afraid there's going to be some real serious looks at things that are importation to us. I mean everyone I talk to, you know, always says, 'well yeah, we've got to cut that budget, but don't cut my part of the budget, cut that guy's part of the budget.' And that's always the case.”
Though the state's operating budget – that is, the money to pay state workers and keep the lights on – dwarfs the capital budget – the money for projects in various communities, Stevens foresees bleak times ahead for towns wanting to spruce up their infrastructure on the state's dime:
“I think we're going to have a real limited capital budget this year. Not a lot of projects. I know communities would like to see it. But I've heard things from folks on finance that are quite concerned about the marine highway system and looking at some serious cuts there,” he said. “I hope that doesn't happen, and I hope we can remind them how important the marine highway is to folks here in Kodiak and coastal Alaska. But everything is going to be on the table, and things that are important to us is going to be looked at very, very carefully.”
Stevens, a retired professor and past chair of the Senate Education Committee, says a lawsuit from Southeast may have statewide implications that could further put strain on the budget:
“Yeah, we're facing some pretty serious things. As you know, one issue that has me concerned is the Ketchikan lawsuit that says that the boroughs and cities should have no obligation to help pay for education. That's been a major part of our education funding in the past,” he said. “So if that were to take place, if suddenly we found ourselves as a state having to pay for the entire education bill with boroughs and cities not getting involved, then there'll be even more serious cuts elsewhere. So that's quite concerning to me.”
Governor Bill Walker is asking his commissioners and even the public for suggestions for how to balance the budget and has put a freeze on six large state projects, including the Kodiak Launch Complex. Senator Stevens suspects there'll be more austerity measures before revenues return to pre-oil crash levels.