dan ortiz

Dan Ortiz is the new non-affiliated state representative for Alaska House District 36. (Katarina Sostaric/KSTK)

House District 36 Rep. Dan Ortiz held his first teleconference Friday with his Wrangell constituents.

Ortiz said the big issue for the legislature has been trying to close the state’s $3.5 billion deficit.

“Behind pretty much all the different activities and bills, there’s been this deficit that we started the session with. That’s been the driving factor,” Ortiz said.

Ortiz provided updates on the status of some state budget concerns mentioned earlier by Wrangell residents and officials.

The Department of Corrections plan to cut funding for its community jails program could result in Wrangell’s jail losing most of its funding. That is one of the main concerns for Wrangell officials.

But Ortiz said he doubts the local jail would have to close down.

“I believe now they’re looking at reduced overall funding per facility, but to keep all the facilities open is what their goal is going to be. A lot of their calculations are based on daily per-bed usage, and I think now they’re doing some calculations as to what the actual allotment will be for facilities like those in Wrangell,” Ortiz said. “I’m convinced the facility in Wrangell will be kept open.”

Ortiz sits on the House Transportation Committee, and he said he’s asking his fellow lawmakers to restore funding to the Alaska Marine Highway System. The ferry system is facing a $10 million cut and fewer sailings in the legislature’s proposed budget.

“I’m convinced a significant portion of that will be restored to the ferry system,” Ortiz said. “I made the point in committee that while reductions have taken place across the Department of Transportation, I haven’t heard of anyone closing roads up in the interior or anywhere in the state. And with this cut, you’d be closing our road system in Southeast Alaska. I think that message is getting through in public comments.”

Many coastal Alaska residents have testified before the House Finance Committee requesting they maintain full ferry service.

Ortiz also called cuts to Department of Education programs “not practical.” He also said he is working to get the wildlife trooper position restored in Wrangell.