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Begich Challenges Feds to Loosen the Reins

The National Administration and Many in Congress are Simply Wrong

Persistence and an aggressive education effort is paying dividends to Alaskans when it comes to our state’s relationship with the federal government, U.S. Sen. Mark Begich told a legislative forum this morning.

At the same time federal bureaucrats often frustrate Alaskans, the federal government is an invaluable partner to Alaska, supplying millions of dollars annually and providing essential services like transportation and national defense.

“From the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to Alaskans basic Second Amendment rights, the national administration and many in Congress are simply wrong - and need to be told so in no uncertain terms. I’ve been aggressive doing exactly that,” Begich said.

The forum was a “Federal Overreach Summit” convened by the Legislature’s Citizens’ Advisory Commission on Federal Areas. Sen. Begich joined Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Congressman Don Young in providing the delegation’s perspective on Alaska’s relationship with the federal government.

The senator cited a long list of successes in standing up to the feds:
 

  • Off-shore Arctic oil and gas development;
  • Held off congressional proposals to permanently lock up ANWR;
  • Permitted the Kensington Mine and expanded the Red Dog Mine;
  • Preventing the transfer of fighter jets from Eielson Air Force Base and protecting that installation’s vital mission;
  • Battling efforts to impose a cookie-cutter “roadless rule” in the Tongass National Forest;
  • Protecting Bypass Mail and rural postal services for Alaskans;
  • Fighting for the basic rights to health and safety for fellow Alaskans in King Cove;
  • Permanently reauthorized the Indian Health Service

The full text of Sen. Begich’s remarks are below:

            Over Alaska’s more than half century as a state, beating up on feds has been good policy and good politics – and they’ve deserved much of it.

In my five years in Senate, been amazed at ignorance about our state and sometimes willful disregard of our way of life.

From ANWR to Second Amendment rights, national administration and many in Congress are simply wrong - and need to be told so in no uncertain terms. I’ve been aggressive doing exactly that.

A few years ago, many of us got a good laugh from Anchorage Daily News column headlined, quote: “Dear feds: We loathe you. Please send money.”

Not usually in business of handing out compliments to the media, especially Daily News. But it’s a good point.

Seems like every few weeks, I get a letter, press release or threatened lawsuit – many from Third Floor of Capitol – taking federal government to task for some evil under-taking.

At the same time, the federal government is a vital partner to Alaska in the form of both essential services and big bucks.

According to ISER, the federal government spent 11-billion dollars in Alaska in federal fiscal ‘10. That includes benefits for the military servicemen and women we so cherish in our state, retirement and disability payments to our seniors, and health care to about half our population through the Defense Department, VA, Indian Health Service, Medicaid and Medicare.

That healthy payout ranks Alaska third among all the 50 states in per person federal spending. For every dollar Alaskans send to Uncle Sam in federal taxes, we get back nearly two dollars in return. A pretty good deal.

Doesn’t include the national gas tax, where Alaska receives more than 6-dollars for every dollar we pay. This underwrites the cost of road construction and maintenance in our state.

The Legislature and governor recently approved this year’s state budget, accepting nearly 3-billion dollars in federal funds for services from road improvements and Medicaid payments to school assistance.

That makes up almost a fourth of your entire 13-billion-dollar budget.

In addition to this routine federal funding, Alaska received the biggest single federal payout in memory – more than 2-billion dollars - with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, to help our state and nation recover from the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression.

That historic legislation built essential projects and created and protected about 8,000 Alaskan jobs. I was proud to be one of the critical votes to put it over the top.

As you know, federal spending has a big downside – there’s simply too much of it.

The unprecedented 16-trillion dollars in federal debt – nearly 46,000-dollars for every man, woman and child in America – is irresponsible. It acts as an anchor, dragging down our economy.

That’s why I strongly support federal spending cuts. I believe they start with members of Congress, which is why I opposed a pay raise for senators, cut my own office budget and forced my staff to take unpaid furloughs.

It surprises many that we’re actually making some progress on cutting federal spending. Over the past two years, have reduced budget deficit by 2.4-trillion dollars. We’ve cut the annual deficit by half.

Not sure if everyone in this room has heard those welcome figures because they don’t fit with the regular drumbeat of fed bashing. But by anyone’s standard, cutting the annual deficit in half is welcome news.

But it’s not enough. So Congress passed automatic budget cuts, known in Washington-ese as sequestration.

They are having impact on Alaskans, as I hear daily:
 

  • Fewer federal education dollars for schools, special education and child care;
  • Cuts to Coast Guard fisheries law enforcement;
  • Reductions to Essential Air Service, which supports transportation to rural communities, and longer lines to get through airport security;
  • Thousands of lost civilian and military jobs at our bases.

That’s one reason I was able to secure a seat on the influential Senate Appropriations Committee, joining Senator Murkowski to better guide future federal budgets.

With both of us in those key positions, Alaska couldn’t be better positioned.

Every single day I’m standing up for Alaska and working with Lisa and Don to educate federal bureaucrats and members of Congress about our unique needs. And challenging them when they are wrong.

The list of our successes is long:

  • After years of Alaska getting stiffed on off-shore development in the Arctic, we cleared the way for Shell, Conoco-Phillips and others to develop the enormous oil and gas resources there.
  • We’ve held off congressional proposals to permanently lock up ANWR.
  • Permitted the Kensington Mine,
  • Expanded the Red Dog Mine.
  • We’re preventing the transfer of fighter jets from Eielson and protecting the vital mission of that base.
  • Battling efforts to impose a cookie-cutter roadless rule in the Tongass, which restricts mining, hydro development and timber harvesting.
  • We’re working to reverse burdensome USDA regs prohibiting the use of subsistence foods in food banks and community events.
  • Protected Bypass mail and rural postal services for Alaskans.
  • Fighting for basic rights to health and safety for fellow Alaskans in King Cove.
  • We permanently reauthorized the Indian Health Service.
  • We protected our fundamental Second Amendment rights.
     

I could go on. But let me use my remaining time to briefly outline five quick areas where I believe the Legislature, state administration and Alaskans interested in this summit can be of assistance when it comes to Alaska’s relationship with the federal government.

First, resource development. I commended Governor Parnell on his initiative to identify the oil and gas resources beneath ANWR – and I said the Interior secretary was wrong to deny Alaskans this opportunity.

As we continue to open federal lands and waters to development, Alaskans must receive a fair share of the revenues. Senator Murkowski and I both have revenue sharing bills – mine provides up to 38 billion-dollars to affected Alaskans, communities and tribal organizations.

I welcomed the Legislature for acting this past session to jump-start an Alaska natural gas pipeline.

We at the federal level have been doing our part to try to extend the benefits of the federal gasline coordinator’s office to any Alaska gas project, not just to a line through Canada to the Lower 48 as envisioned in the original 2004 law.

This would help an all-Alaska gasline, an export line or the larger line to middle America.

Another great opportunity for state-federal partnership is developing Alaska’s huge rare earths potential. At the delegation’s urging, the Forest Service has approved an exploration permit for Ucore Rare Metals to drill in roadless areas of the Tongass.

Their Bokan Mountain development on Prince of Wales Island holds enormous promise for our state and nation.

Second, management of the Arctic. As you know, Alaska is the only reason the United States is an Arctic nation. What’s happening in the Arctic – climate change, transportation, resource development – is attracting a lot of federal attention.

Alaska and the U.S. need to be at the forefront. That’s why I introduced legislation to expedite Arctic port development, and urged the Legislature to engage in public-private partnerships to develop these necessary port facilities.

My bill also streamlines permitting by creating a one-stop shop for Arctic port environmental review. I urge the State to do the same – by reauthorizing Alaska’s Coastal Zone Management Program.

To better represent American Arctic interests at the international level, I was successful including a provision in the recent Foreign Relations appropriations bill calling on the State Department to create an Arctic ambassador to put us on par with other Arctic countries.

Third, we all must do a better job making sure young Alaskans are prepared for the enormous challenges of the global economy. I’ve said often the federal government’s approach – No Child Left Behind – doesn’t work for our state.

That’s why I was pleased the state finally sought a waiver from this misguided law. But that’s temporary.

More permanent and effective approaches are improved early childhood education, incentives for innovation – especially in rural schools – and STEM education.

I‘ve introduced legislation in each of these areas at the federal level.

I urge the state to advance education reforms as well, and fully fund this most important public service.

Fourth, we must come together to address the especially troubling trends in rural Alaska. We’re all familiar with the shameful statistics: skyrocketing rates of suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence and child abuse, lack of economic opportunity.

Late last month, I again introduced my Safe Villages and Families Act designed to provide Alaska tribes more power to address some of these issues in their communities. I’m pleased to have Senator Murkowski as a co-sponsor.

I wish I could say the same about the State of Alaska, which has actively opposed this bill for the past four years. Here’s an area ripe for partnership because what the state has been doing in rural Alaska in recent years is simply not working.

Another great partner of both the state and federal government are Alaska’s Native corporations. As you know, these corporations employ thousands of Alaskans and bring millions of dollars home to our state from all over the world.

They provide important services for Alaska’s economy, from oil and gas development to pipeline security to tourism. Created by a federal act, they certainly should play a role in state-federal relations.

Fifth but certainly not last, our economy. In addition to focusing on Alaska’s resource development, I believe we must do everything possible to encourage the growth of small business. In the past 15 years, small businesses have generated two-thirds of new jobs in our country.

To continue that growth, I recently introduced my Small Business Relief Plan, a package of five bills and other directives that recognize the key role small businesses play in our nation’s economic recovery.

My plan focuses on improving the health reform law to make it work for small businesses, calls for permanent tax deductions for certain business expenses and quicker action to allow businesses access to capital.

I’d urge the state to take similar steps. One idea I mentioned in my legislative address a couple of years ago still has merit. Alaska’s best and brightest entrepreneurs offer much promise in developing our state’s high-tech innovative industries. But one thing they lack is capital.

I suggested that you consider investing a portion of the state’s huge budget surplus as an incubator to encourage these smart Alaskans to create new companies and jobs. A modest state investment would go a long way toward leveraging federal and private dollars.

Thanks again for the opportunity to join you today. Just like an earlier generation of Alaskans refused to surrender to federal dictates or be bullied by outside special interests, I urge us to work together to determine Alaska’s destiny, on Alaska’s terms.

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