Peninsula priority lists dwindle as state financial assistance unlikely next year

Posted: Sunday, December 07, 2003

By the time state lawmakers gaveled an end to the legislative session May 21, they'd appropriated nearly $8.9 million toward projects within the Kenai Peninsula Borough's three House districts.

On June 12, some $4.65 million of that evaporated with the sweep of a veto pen, including more than $960,000 in municipal matching grants. Statewide, Gov. Frank Murkowski had vetoed $27 million from the fiscal year 2004 Capital Budget.

High on the list of questions nagging borough officials on the peninsula is what to expect in the way of state capital spending next year. Equally important is finding the right way to ask for funds from a Legislature facing serious budget deficits whose members may be predisposed to say no.

For the borough, that's likely to mean a legislative wish list a lot thinner than the three-fourths-inch-thick tome delivered to Juneau last year, said Ron Long, the assembly member from Seward who heads the assembly's Legislative Com-mittee.

"It would be my hope to stick to nuts and bolts life and safety, the very basic needs," he said Friday. "I would hope we could come out with a book that is fairly austere."

This year's book, entitled Legislative Priorities 2003, included not only a host of capital projects desired by the borough, but also those requested by service areas, unincorporated communities and cities. It also listed key philosophical legislative priorities, such as support for a natural gas pipeline, regulatory reform, gas and oil exploration incentives, adequate funding for education and more.

About a third of this year's book was devoted to lists and descriptions of projects from incorporated cities: Kenai, Soldotna, Seward, Homer and Seldovia. The borough has asked city councils to limit their requests to just two pages in the next edition, Long said.

Meanwhile, the various service area boards and advisory planning commissions representing unincorporated parts of the borough have been asked to contribute just two projects each.

"That will reduce the bulk considerably," Long said.

Long also suggested that a book naming basic capital needs might not be the place to express the borough's political philosophies on larger statewide issues.

"We will do that by lobbying, or resolutions, and letters from the (assembly) president or mayor or both," he said.

The hope is that by not asking state lawmakers to wade through heaps of descriptive detail and long lists of projects that have little hope for funding, those projects that are listed will be seen as vital, Long said.

Further, he said he hoped local communities and their lawmakers would be seen to have done their part in response to the fiscal crisis facing the state by paring their lists of requests.

Assembly President Pete Sprague said there was a feeling on the assembly that the wish-list process had become somewhat cumbersome and the list too long.

Still, he's not ready to scale back too far. A longer list of projects, even if they all won't be funded, gives state lawmakers a truer picture of what the borough needs and a menu from which to choose, he said.

Sprague agreed with Long that the borough's legislative philosophies on broader issues might better be expressed through resolutions than as part of the capital request booklet.

"We are trying to simplify the process," he said.

Long said he expects the borough to ask again for road improvement funds and money for solid waste management projects, as well as grants for emergency services equipment, and other "nuts and bolts" kinds of items.

One thing that won't be high on his personal list would be asking for money for the 2006 Arctic Winter Games. The governor vetoed a $250,000 appropriation to that project last June. Whether the games make it onto the borough's 2004 wish list, however, would be up to the full assembly, Long said.

The borough is holding a series of community meetings in the unincorporated areas to hear from residents about what they see as their top legislative priorities. House and Senate members representing those areas have attended. Sprague said those meetings were proving quite productive.

Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, said he was delivering the same message about capital spending at meetings he's attended.

"I told mine to expect nothing and be happy if they get anything," he said. "We have lots of needs and lots of wants, and depending on what the governor does eventually propose as far as an overall budget will determine if the communities receive anything in terms of capital spending."

As for paring down wish lists, Chenault said it was probably a good approach, however, he personally likes to see longer lists because sometimes big-ticket items that often top those priority lists can't be funded, while smaller projects on the list might fit into an overall capital spending plan.

He said there would be a capital budget, but it won't be big, and it likely would be to focus on employing grants and one-time sources of money and move away from using general fund dollars, he said.

Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, said he would expect funding for life and safety projects, such as for the upgrading the borough's 911 emergency system, as well as one he'd push for a parking area in Ninilchik to eliminate highway roadside parking during the fair, a situation he said was highly dangerous.

He also said there probably would be some money for Soldotna and Kenai water and sewer projects, as well as funding for road projects, but it is too early to say which or how much.

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