Anchorage pushing for port, more flexible finances from Legislature

Members of the Berkowitz administration discuss budget shortfalls with members of the Anchorage Assembly at City Hall. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media - Anchorage)
Members of the Berkowitz administration meeting with the Assembly in September. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

In a departure from big wish lists of the past, Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s legislative request has only one capital budget project. The administration is also pushing for a number of law changes designed to give local governments more financial flexibility.

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Berkowitz submitted his legislative program to the city’s Assembly on Friday. It’s a menu of funding items and bills the municipality hopes to see from the Legislature in the upcoming session.

This year’s legislative program is just seven pages – six if you don’t count the title page. The small size and focused scope are intentional steps toward a new funding relationship between Anchorage and the state, according to Ona Brause, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff.

“We had a pretty sparse request last year, and we’re continuing with that,” Brause said.

The one big request is for $298 million for improvements to the Port of Anchorage, something city officials insist is a state-wide asset in critical need of repair. It’s the same approach the administration tried last year, emphasizing the port as it’s main funding need and pushing for it to go on a state-wide bond proposal.

“In the past, the legislative programs have been 50, 60 pages deep,” Brause added. “And with the way the state is dealing with the fiscal situation we don’t expect them to have very large capital budgets.”

But many of the other requested are changes to state laws that will allow local governments more latitude in collecting funds for themselves.

For example, letting municipalities set property tax exemptions rather than state statutes determining them. Or ironing out a section of SB91, the criminal justice overhaul, that lowered fines for traffic violations. Another change seeks to get rid of a “mandatory sprinkler system exemption” in state law, since Anchorage’s building code makes that redundant, shifting more than $815,000 of the tax-burden onto property owners, according to the administration.

The overall goal, according to Brause, is adjusting or eliminating some of the state laws that hinder the municipality’s ability to raise revenues.

“Our request focuses on the largest infrastructure need for the municipality coupled with legislation that frees up municipalities to make decisions at a local level that they have been prevented to (make) by the state legislation in the past,” Brause said.

The other major change requested by the administration is the replacement of the current municipal revenue sharing program with a community dividend. The idea came from former governor Wally Hickel, according to Brouse. It relies on an endowment model similar to the PFD to redistribute the state’s wealth to local governments for more predictable budget building. Brouse said pay-outs to Anchorage from the current program have ranged from $20 million to just $4 million, and that’s been a challenge in local budgeting.

“Having a firm, predictable funding source from the state is something that all the municipalities and local governments need,” Brouse said.

Brouse admitted the administration’s legislative program this year has some heavy lifts. But she’s optimistic that politics in Juneau may be a bit different with a new majority caucus in the house.

Zachariah Hughes reports on city & state politics, arts & culture, drugs, and military affairs in Anchorage and South Central Alaska.

@ZachHughesAK About Zachariah

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