State ferries won’t stop sailing April 16, after all

Ferry props wait for use at the Alaska Marine Highway Warehouse in Ketchikan on Feb. 19, 2014. The ferries will continue sailing this spring and early summer thanks to a bill Gov. Bill Walker signed Tuesday. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

The Alaska Marine Highway System will not have to shut down in April.

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Gov. Bill Walker signed a supplemental appropriations bill Tuesday funding the ferry system through the end of the current fiscal year in June.

The gap would have left an 11-week hole in the system’s budget. April 16 was set as the shutdown date.

Sitka Republican Sen. Bert Stedman represents many of the Southeast communities most dependent on the ferry system.

“I think that’s great. We can get the marine highway through the first of July and then have a fairly flat schedule going forward, with a few little improvements for the next year and continue to try to move the marine highway forward instead of backwards,” Stedman said.

The supplemental bill provides about $24 million for the ferry system.

The shortfall was caused by an earlier spending bill meant to fund Medicaid if it ran out of money. It called for that money to come from the ferry system. Those terms were not widely known.

Stedman sounded the alarm about the shortfall in September. He called it “skullduggery and downright sleazy.”

“It’s not how we should do budgets or how we should deal with the public purse. So I think the negative press from those type of actions goes a long way to keep them from recurring” Stedman said.

The $110 million fast-track supplemental bill also funds gaps in state Medicaid and prison programs.

Ferry funding for the budget year beginning in July still needs to be approved by the full Legislature. So far, it’s passed the House but not the Senate.

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Ed Schoenfeld is Regional News Director for CoastAlaska, a consortium of public radio stations in Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg and Wrangell. He primarily covers Southeast Alaska regional topics, including the state ferry system, transboundary mining, the Tongass National Forest and Native corporations and issues. He has also worked as a manager, editor and reporter for the Juneau Empire newspaper and Juneau public radio station KTOO. He’s also reported for commercial station KINY in Juneau and public stations KPFA in Berkley, WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and WUHY in Philadelphia. He’s lived in Alaska since 1979 and is a contributor to Alaska Public Radio Network newscasts, the Northwest (Public Radio) News Network and National Native News. He is a board member of the Alaska Press Club. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, he lives in Douglas.