Protesters rally at State Capitol against cuts to the Alaska Marine Highway System

JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) — Dozens of union members protested on the steps of the Alaska State Capitol Wednesday against the governor’s proposed cuts to education and the Alaska Marine Highway System.

Robb Arnold, a member of the Inlandboatmen’s Union, said members are “concerned about the communities” impacted by the governor’s plan that would see the ferry system cease operations from Oct. 1.

Arnold said the union wants to be part of the conversation with the administration.

“We're trying to help in anyway we can,” Arnold said.

The governor has signaled that tough choices need to be made with a $1.6 billion deficit and depleted state savings. The administration has asked that a qualified marine consultant examine the state ferry system with the potential for privatization.

The marine consultant would present their findings Aug. 1 with a plan to be implemented by July 1, 2020.

Democratic lawmakers spoke out vociferously against the proposed cuts, including Juneau Rep. Sara Hannan and Sen. Jesse Kiehl.

“We want to protect our ferries so that our small communities don't die,” Hannan said to the crowd.

Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, said that his office had received calls from concerned constituents about the proposed changes to the ferry system. He says he expects the Legislature will modify the plan before the budget goes to the governor’s desk.

Stedman, who is the co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, compared the marine highway system to the Glenn Highway or the Parks Highway for its importance to Southeast Alaska. He said closing those highways, like closing the Alaska Marine Highway System, is “just not practical.”

“I think the economic damage is too severe to do that,” Stedman said.