Anchorage legislative priorities include Port of Alaska funding, new dividend program, mayor says

Mayor Ethan Berkowitz at a press conference in Anchorage City Hall in 2019. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media)

Before the Alaska Legislature convenes in Juneau on Jan. 21, Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz made his case to lawmakers about the municipality’s priorities.

Inside a conference room at the Legislative Information Office Monday, Berkowitz stressed that in order to maximize effectiveness there needs to be collaboration between lawmakers who represent the city and local officials.

“The municipality and the state should be working together to solve the problems that both of our constituencies face,” said Berkowitz, himself a former Democratic representative.

“I have great deal of confidence that if we work together we can find efficiencies, we can find ways for the state to reduce its budgets and the municipality to absorb more responsibilities that serve everyone more intelligently,” he said.

The Berkowitz Administration has three main asks of the city’s delegation. It is hoping to see more state dollars for substance abuse treatment and services helping the homeless. Berkowitz would also like to see a new dividend program introduced as an alternative to the long-standing community revenue sharing system. The appropriation would automatically spin off a small percentage of earnings from the Permanent Fund to local governments each year.

Anchorage officials have been frustrated in recent budget cycles by the dramatic decline in state dollars from diminished revenue sharing and thin capital budgets, which have left the municipality with tens of millions of dollars less in operating funds.

The administration’s last major request is for the state to put forward a $200 million general obligation bond to help improve the severely decayed Port of Alaska. Though the municipality has managed to assemble enough financing to pay for upgrades to its cement and petroleum terminal, that is considered low-hanging fruit compared to costly repairs needed to fortify the essential piece of infrastructure.

“We’re looking at probably at least a billion dollars to construct the cargo terminal,” said Chief of Staff Jason Bockenstedt.

Bockenstedt said the bond money would go to design work, permitting and potentially early stage construction of port improvements.

Given the port’s strategic importance serving the state’s military bases, one lawmaker asked whether the city had spoken with the congressional delegation about procuring federal dollars through the National Defense Authorization Act. Berkowitz said he’d recently discussed the topic with Sen. Dan Sullivan at a local fried chicken restaurant (they both had hamburgers). In its current configuration, Berkowitz explained, federal dollars for the Port of Alaska have to come through the Department of Transportation.

Legislators also received a presentation on the status of homeless services in the municipality after this summer’s contentious budget and veto battles between lawmakers and the governor. It was part of the city’s effort to stress the need for more resources to keep people housed, provide more shelter options, and assist residents transitioning out of homelessness.