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Austerman aims to help ailing seafood industry

Posted: Tuesday, January 14, 2003

A host of problems plaguing Alaska's seafood industry must be addressed if this economic engine is to regain its strength and compete in future markets, Sen. Alan Austerman, R-Kodiak, said.

Austerman's Senate District R includes the major fishing ports of Kodiak, Homer and Seward. He's well aware of the difficulties facing the industry, he said.

"We'll be working on trying to solve some of the problems with the seafood industry," he said. "I feel we need to continue with the work of the Salmon Task Force and look at legislation suggested by them."

That could include developing a long-term business plan for the future of the industry by "defining where we want to be in 15 or 20 years, setting goals and adjusting the industry and the Legislature toward that goal," he said.

The future holds "wholesale changes" for the industry, he added.

Alaska's Board of Fish and Board of Game were created as laymen's boards, not professional boards, he said. Politics should stay out of decisions on allocation of fisheries resources. They should be governed by science.

"The last thing we need is for politics to be involved," he said.

Austerman said he has pre-filed only one bill, Senate Bill 18, a measure that would allow the farming of finfish, excluding salmon, in waters other than those defined as "waters of the state," which are navigable waters and adjacent waters within the territorial limits of the state.

Austerman did not rate the chances of the Legislature passing a long-range fiscal plan this session as very good.

"I'm not totally confident one will be passed," he said. "There are very divided opinions in the state as far as what our income is and what we need to spend."

He said with a Republican Legislature, a Republican governor, a Republican-led Congress and Republican president, there may be a temptation among far right members of his party to attempt severe cuts to the budget. He will oppose that, he said, adding that the possibility of a pendulum swing to the far right will be there with the current political atmosphere.

He said he expects continuing discussion on taxes and on use of the earnings of the Alaska Permanent Fund to balance the state budget, which is facing a deficit again in fiscal year 2004, despite several months of high oil

prices.

"The price of oil last year has helped the immediate crisis of this year and extended the life of the Constitutional Budget Reserve," he said. "But OPEC is talking about increasing production, and that could drive down oil prices."

Austerman said he has met with other Kenai Peninsula legislators and hasbecome familiar with education and transportation issues facing his new constituency. He said he would support an increase in the per-student funding for schools.

"We have not kept up with inflation within the education process," he said.

He also said he expects a supplemental budget bill to include funding to reopen the Ninilchik highway maintenance station.

The Legislature also should focus on economic development. He said some moves in fisheries could be pursued, but beyond that, the state should look to other industries that might be enticed to come to Alaska for its beauty -- industries tied to things like telecommunications.



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