At AFN convention, Edgmon warns of looming budget battles: ‘We have arrived at the proverbial crossroads’

House Speaker Bryce Edgmon at the Alaska Capitol in 2019.
House Speaker Bryce Edgmon at the Alaska Capitol in 2019.(KTUU)
Published: Oct. 15, 2020 at 7:28 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The Alaska House of Representatives Speaker Bryce Edgmon warned of looming budget battles during his keynote address on Thursday to the Alaska Federation of Natives annual convention.

“We have arrived at the proverbial crossroads,” Edgmon said, explaining that state savings accounts are exhausted and Alaska’s fiscal challenges are starker than ever.

The Legislative Finance Division recently reported that a full statutory Permanent Fund dividend and a flat budget would see the budget $2.4 billion in deficit for the next fiscal year. Tough choices are inevitable in Juneau, Edgmon said, but there are concerns that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken attention away from their impacts.

“And I’m really worried that a lot of Alaskans aren’t aware of that, aren’t prepared for it,” he added.

Edgmon, the state’s first Alaska Native House speaker, invited the governor to help resolve “the dilemma” over how revenue drawn annually from the Permanent Fund is split between dividends and paying for state services.

“It’s my utter belief that until we get that figured out, we’re going to struggle getting the state on a pathway to a sound fiscal footing,” Edgmon, an independent from Dillingham, said.

The governor’s office released a statement Thursday afternoon saying that the governor appreciated the invitation to address the future of the Permanent Fund’s Earnings Reserve Account.

“It is important to understand that he has urged lawmakers to work with him on legislation to protect the Permanent Fund dividend and create a sustainable and affordable budget from the beginning of his administration,” Jeff Turner, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, wrote by email. “The Governor looks forward to working with legislative leadership when the new session begins in January.”

The concern over the state’s budget inspired the theme of AFN’s annual convention for the past two years. “Good government, Alaska driven,” was the theme for last year’s convention, becoming, “Good government, Alaska decides,” for this year’s convention.

Sheri Buretta, an AFN board member, said the 2019 budget battles inspired the focus on discussing what “good government” means.

“We understand that budget cuts were necessary to bridge the state’s $1.5 billion fiscal gap, but we were worried that rural Alaska was being unfairly impacted by the budget cuts in Juneau,” Buretta said.

The Alaska Federation of Natives is now focused on being more engaged than ever in helping to shape Alaska’s future.

Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, spoke before the convention on behalf of the Bush Caucus. She expressed concern that some in Alaska wanted to cut essential services and “put rural Alaska communities on the edge.”

Some prospective legislators have suggested the $1 billion Power Cost Equalization fund could be a potential source of revenue for the next legislative session. The PCE fund is used to help lower high energy costs in rural Alaska.

The governor’s office said Dunleavy’s comments delivered at the 2019 AFN convention on the future of the PCE still stand:

“I am committed to working with Senator Hoffman, Representative Lincoln and other lawmakers to ensure the long-term protection of the PCE fund so that affordable electricity for rural Alaska is never in doubt,” the governor said in Fairbanks in 2019.

Governor addresses AFN convention

Gov. Mike Dunleavy addressed the convention himself through a pre-recorded message played shortly after Edgmon. Dunleavy touted his administration’s partnerships with Alaska Native groups in helping to curb the spread of COVID-19 in rural Alaska.

“Together, we’ll make Alaska a stronger and better place by working together,” Dunleavy said.

The governor argued that giving local communities “unprecedented latitude” in designing their own COVID-19 plans had worked. Critical industries had continued to operate during the pandemic and around 400 COVID-19 cases had been caught before arriving into Alaska, the governor said.

Edgmon also credited the Dunleavy administration with developing protocols that allowed for a commercial fishing season in Alaska. “Even recognizing that some regions didn’t really have the best of seasons, but we had one,” Edgmon said.

The governor didn’t speak about the state’s fiscal crisis in his address but he did speak about rebuilding Alaska’s economy that’s been hit by the pandemic.

“Whether that means supporting new industries like mariculture, advocating for renewable energy projects, or building roads to resources — every option is on the table to provide Alaskans with opportunity, including those in rural Alaska,” the governor said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, is working to take one potential revenue-raising option off the table. Murkowski told the AFN delegates she is opposed to the proposed Pebble mine and will work through Congress to block it.

“But I simply think that this is the wrong mine, in the wrong place,” she said, echoing the late Sen. Ted Stevens.

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