The second regular session of the 32nd Alaska legislative session kicked off January 19 and committee meetings and budget review are underway. Independent Rep. Dan Ortiz of Ketchikan spoke with KRBD about the start of the session and his thoughts on the state’s ferry system.

Ortiz is chair of three House Finance subcommittees – Education, Environmental Conservation, and Transportation. He says the Legislature is just starting a formal review of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget, and during two floor sessions, new bills were introduced and assigned to committees.

Ortiz says he’s particularly focused on a bill he introduced several sessions ago, House Bill 41. That measure would  allow shellfish populations to be enhanced with hatchery stock and expand state-funded marketing of aquatic farm products.

“And that’s, again, in the name of mariculture, development of mariculture, and to help develop that industry. It’s the vision of the mariculture folks to get that to a $1 billion a year industry,” he said

His says the bill stalled in the Senate Finance committee at the end of last session, but hopes to see the bill passed early in the session.

Ortiz says the Alaska Marine Highway System also remains a priority. And he says things are looking brighter for the state ferry fleet. The federal bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by Congress last November provides $1 billion for essential ferry service in rural and coastal Alaskan communities, and $73 million for new ferry construction. Ortiz says there is also an opportunity to upgrade and modernize the ferry fleet.

“So that we can begin to look at how we can update our entire marine transportation infrastructure by perhaps, looking at battery operated, electric operated ferries that might be in existence, if the Marine Highway System is in existence 20 years from now. Who knows what percentage of the fleet might be entirely electric,” he said.

But Ortiz says he is concerned that the governor’s current budget relies on federal funding for the marine highway.

“When those federal dollars, which won’t last forever, go away, we’re concerned if we adopt this path of strictly funding the Marine Highway System with federal dollars, what happens when those federal dollars run out, and are we then going to be facing an uphill battle with the rest of the legislature?” Ortiz said.

He says he’s concerned if state ferry system funding is eliminated, some legislators may be hesitant to spend state money on it in the future.

Ortiz says he’s also optimistic that service will be restored to Prince Rupert, B.C. He says though there are some challenges, including repair of the ramp and a need to provide security measures, Marine Highway officials have publicly stated they are committed to resuming service by May 1.

Here is the entire 20-minute January 25 interview on KRBD’s Morning Edition: