Alaska’s Legislature has been at an impasse for months on the state budget. Gov. Bill Walker called legislators back for a second special session Friday and voiced his dissatisfaction with their progress. With a potential state government shutdown about two weeks away, Homer’s fishing and tourism industry could suffer.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is still working through the kinks of a potential government shutdown on July 1.
“This has never happened in Alaska. We’ve never faced this,” Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotton said.
Cotten is working with the Department of Law and Gov. Bill Walker to find out how the department will operate if the government shuts down.
“What we’re looking at with commercial fishing is apparent conflicting requirements in the Constitution, one that we manage on a sustained yield basis and that would require continuing to manage commercial fisheries,” Cotten said. “On the other hand, the Constitution requires the Legislature to make an appropriation before we’re allowed to spend money. There’s uncertainty there.”
Cotten explained the department may operate at limited capacity, but it’s still unclear if commercial fisheries would continue to be managed or shut down completely.
Fisherman in Homer’s harbor are gearing up for the season. Seiner and President of North Pacific Fisheries Association Malcom Milne fishes in Lower Cook Inlet.
Fishing is Milne and his crew’s main source of income. He said he’s in disbelief it has come to this point.
“In my opinion, if there were ever a basis for a recall, it would for if they weren’t able to actually pass a budget,” Milne said. “That would be completely derelict of their duties in my opinion.”
Dockworkers and a handful of seafood processors in Homer could also feel a ripple effect from the lack of commercially caught fish.
North Pacific Fisheries Association is one of several member groups of the statewide industry group United Fisherman of Alaska. Milne said UFA’s board has been actively putting pressure on legislatures to pass a budget.
“We have letters out. We’ve been contacting legislators. It shouldn’t be lost on any of them how serious this is,” he said.
Commissioner Cotten said Fish and Game staff will remain on the job until the June 30 deadline, but 110 employees could be laid off across the Kenai Peninsula. Fish and Game employs about 1,700 people across the state.
Homer’s tourism industry could also take a hit during a shutdown. Kachemak Bay State Park is a big attraction for tourists. The park would remain open to the public, but some services would be unavailable.
Acting State Parks Director Matt Wedeking said Commercial operators, such as water taxis, should check the expiration dates on their commercial use permits.
“If you have a commercial use permit, it’s still valid,” Wedeking explained. “The issue is if anybody else would like to apply for one, we won’t have staff here to process new permits until a later date.”
Mako’s Water Taxi owner Mako Haggerty said reservations for trips to the park peak in July and is a large portion of his business.
Haggerty’s commercial use permit is good through December. But, with the park’s trail crew and two park rangers out of a job during a shutdown, he thinks people may be less inclined to book a ride across the bay.
“Knowing that a certain trail might be impacted by a fallen tree or poor drainage, that could affect the experience for actually a lot of people going over,” Haggerty said.
Wedeking explained that restrooms, water systems and other facilities would shut down. Fees for park services would also not be charged, losing valuable revenue for the division. Bookings for public-use cabins will still be valid, but the system will stop taking reservations on July 1.
Haggerty, like Milne, is disgusted with the situation.
“This is one of the consequences of the Legislature and I’ll actually point the finger right at the senate,” he said. “This is one of the consequences from inaction at the senate.”
The House passed a new budget Thursday, the last day of the first special session. The Senate rejected the House’s proposal before gaveling out. Gov. Walker has limited the second session’s session agenda to the operating budget.