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11/24/14 - Walker-Mallott transition teams hear about looming fiscal crisis

Nov 24, 2014

Teams buoyed by hope, sense of new beginnings despite state's finances

This weekend, Walker-Mallott transition teams met at the University of Alaska Anchorage campus. Some 230 Alaskans were grouped by topics such as oil and gas, education, fisheries, fiscal policy and health care. Their task was to work toward consensus on goals, priorities, and recommended actions for incoming Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov.-elect Byron Mallott.

Friday evening participants heard about the state's fiscal situation. Oil prices that have held at more than a hundred dollars a barrel for five years, have dropped over the past few months, and were only $75 a barrel on Friday.

Legislative Finance Senior Fiscal Analyst Amanda Ryder, says, "Tough choices will need to be made everywhere. Even to just maintain a flat budget, you're going to have to cut."

Ryder says the state budget is $6.2 billion, and Alaska's looking at maybe $3 billion in revenues. She says costs are rising, and half the state budget goes into programs that can't be cut, programs such as education, Medicaid, and oil and gas tax credits. Speakers said the state, on its present course, will run through its available savings in just a few  years.

Economist Greg Erickson recommends cutting big-ticket capital projects. He says the state has put $621 million into four projects with costs that far outweigh public benefits: the Juneau access road, Knik Arm bridge, Ambler access road, and the Susitna-Watana dam.

"It turns out the cost of power from Susitna is probably going to be double or four times the cost of power from alternatives," says Erickson. "Who's going to pay that cost? Well, the  people who are promoting the dam want the state taxpayers or state government to buy that cost down to where the utilities can afford it. And given the situation we're in, with oil prices, I don't think that's going to happen. So it's better not to keep dribbling a hundred million dollars into the project every year."

Transition teams include Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, and rural, urban and regional hub residents. Staff estimated 20 to 25% of the committee members are Alaska Natives, including seven of the 17 committee chairs.

Anchorage attorney Sky Starkey, who specializes in Alaska Native hunting, fishing and tribal rights, chaired the subsistence committee. He says diverse views, combined with a sense of hope and new beginnings, aided communications and understanding. For instance, the Alaska Outdoors Council supports repeal of federal rural subsistence priority. But Starkey says the subsistence committee benefited from input by Council director Rod Arno and member Wayne Heimer.

"Their contributions were so incredibly valuable," says Starkey. "Their willingness to talk about the issues, and their willingness to flag really difficult issues where we didn't have consensus and to continue the dialogue on those issues, just really important."

The subsistence committee's top priority is conservation and sustained yield of fish and game. It also recommended addressing dual management; Alaskan solutions that take into consideration both state and tribal sovereignty; and tribal involvement in subsistence co-management.

Tribal sovereignty was also a high priority for the Intergovernmental committed chaired by Liz Medicine Crow, head of the First Alaskans Institute.

"Tribal and state relations need to be on a formal government-to-government basis; that was our top priority," says Medicine Crow. "Our second priority was funding between governments needs to flow -- inclusive of revenue sharing, offshore, etc. -- so that money meant for tribes and local governments goes to them. The third priority was to re-establish, reinstate, coastal zone management. And that was about local control."

Committee recommendations will be made public in a written report due out in a few weeks. Walker says he and Mallott will give recommendations close attention, and plan to call on transition teams again.

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Wintry Bering Sea has the world's most acidic ocean waters

Scientists are saying the world's most acidic ocean waters are found during the cold winter months in the Bering Sea. The Alaska Dispatch News reports Columbia University researchers have released a series of maps tracking changes in global marine activity over 40 years.

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Governor-elect Bill Walker announces first Cabinet appointments

He can't formally offer the jobs until after he's sworn into office on Dec. 1, but Walker has picked University of Alaska Fairbanks vice-chancellor of research Mark Myers to head the Department of Natural Resources. Walker also announced petroleum property assessor Randall Hoffbeck as his choice for Revenue Commissioner.