Neither rain nor snow could deter Homer area residents from attending a town hall meeting with Sen. Mark Begich on Sunday. More than 100 people crowded into the commons of Kachemak Bay Campus, Kenai Peninsula College-University of Alaska Anchorage, to listen to the senator’s comments and to ask questions.
Homer Mayor Beth Wythe introduced Begich, noting his five years of service to the state and his focus on “building a strong economy for Alaska.” Begich serves on the U.S. Senate committees on Appropriations; Veterans’ Affairs; Indian Affairs; Commerce, Science and Transportation; Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs; and the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard.
Although newly elected members of the Senate are still getting adjusted, Begich assured the audience that “we are fully engaged in a lot of issues.”
One of those issues is passage of the Violence Against Women Act.
“The Senate passed it last year with bi-partisan support. It sat in the House and died at the end of the session, but we brought it back,” said Begich.
“It’s important for Alaska and for the rest of the country and I hope the House will move forward on it.”
Begich is a co-sponsor of the VAWA, which seeks to strengthen protections for victims of domestic and sexual abuse and expand programs in support of those victims. On Tuesday, following his visit to Homer, Begich announced the bill had passed in the Senate with a vote of 78-22 and will now proceed to the House.
The need for a Postal Reform Bill that also passed the Senate last year but not the House was addressed by the senator. His comments followed a Feb. 6 announcement of changes to the postal service delivery schedule, namely of weekly five-day mail delivery and six-day package delivery beginning August 2013.
The bigger, over-riding issue, however, is how to deal with the nation’s budget and its $16 trillion debt, said Begich.
“People think the debt occurred overnight, magically. No, this is 50 years of lack of people watching the bottom line, to be frank with you,” he said.
Begich noted the importance of March 1, when automatic budget cuts occur, and March 27, when a continuing resolution allows Congress to fund government agencies if formal appropriations have not been signed into law.
“The problem is you can’t modify a continuing resolution,” said Begich, using the State Department as an example. Under a continuing resolution, “they will still receive dollars for work that they’re doing in the Iraq war. There is no war in Iraq that we’re engaged in, but we’ll still spend the money because the continuing resolution does that. … So, we’re trying to figure out a regular appropriation bill so we can get the junk out and move forward.”
Other topics needing attention are education and immigration reform and energy, “but we can’t get to those issues when we’re buried by budget issues,” said Begich.
Around the state, Begich said Alaska’s “economy is generally pretty good.” With oil and gas revenues declining, however, the state will be challenged “to figure out how to manage the budget with or without tax changes,” he said.
Compared to fishing on the East Coast, fishing in Alaska is in “good” shape. Begich credited Alaska’s Legislature for funding ocean acidification research, he vowed to continue fighting against “Frankenfish,” genetically engineered fish, and said the state’s congressional delegation stands firm in “doing everything we can to take that product off the market.”
In terms of oil and gas development on the outer continental shelf, Begich said the question isn’t if it will happen but how it will be managed for the benefit of Alaska and with the necessary security and safety.
“One thing we’re pushing is a revenue-sharing bill. Any development that goes on out there, we believe Alaska should get a share,” he said. The benefit would go to tribes, local governments, village corporations, “people on the ground that are dealing with the impacts,” with a small percent going to the state.
Before taking questions from the audience, Begich noted the importance of developing Alaska’s ports and harbors and expanding educational opportunities.
“We’ll fund roads and bike trials, but when it comes to ports, they kind of have to fend for themselves,” he said. “That’s a problem because they are a huge part of our economic engine.”
He emphasized the need for vocational education and broadening a “STEM” approach (science, technology, engineering and math) to “STEAM” (science, technology, engineering, art and math).
Asked if he saw an end to the delay of President Obama’s court and committee nominations, Begich described filibustering and changes he supports that would streamline the process.
“To not have judges in positions because of political fighting is ridiculous,” he said.
With regard to the possibility of national funding for tsunami cleanup, Begich noted the bill providing assistance for areas struck by Super Storm Sandy.
“That bill should have been called the disaster relief bill, not the Sandy bill,” said Begich, referencing disasters that occur elsewhere. “Climate change is happening. Anyone who doesn’t think it’s happening is on another planet. That means we’ll have more disasters. … Something’s happening and we need to prepare for it.”
He characterized marine debris it as a “slow disaster.”
“We’re used to earthquakes and storms. They end and you deal with it. … This is one we want to deal with now. If we wait, the accumulation that will occur will be beyond management,” he said.
Asked about the future of the proposed Pebble mine, Begich said he supported the review by the Environmental Protection Agency.
“I think Pebble has huge challenges ahead of them. I don’t know how they’ll ever meet (those challenges), to be frank with you, but we have to let EPA finish with (the review), and then the great debate will begin,” he said.
The question-and-answer period was an opportunity for Begich to announce his intent to sponsor a bill safeguarding the right to vote, progress in the state for veterans to receive health care in their home communities, his support of balancing oil and gas development and environmental concerns, providing the U.S. Coast Guard with the resources it needs and the importance of looking ahead.
“Elected officials think about today, but this state, this community didn’t get built on those ideas. We built thinking about the next 20 years, the next 30 years,” said Begich. “I would challenge you to ask any legislator from any area, ‘Where do you see Alaska in the next 20 years?’ I’d be curious to know what they say. That’s the question we’re not facing in this state.”
In terms of gun control, Begich doesn’t foresee legislation being passed to ban weapons, but he has co-sponsored a bill that would provide teachers with the skills to quickly analyze the mental health of individuals in intervention scenarios. He spoke of the need for an improved background check system and said the Senate will be addressing the trafficking of guns.
Given the current economy, Begich was asked where he saw the nation in 20 years.
“As Americans, for us to believe that we’re going over the cliff and that we’ll be gone as a society, I will never believe that. This country has gone through worse conditions,” said Begich. “This is about money. This is manageable. It does require people to make decisions. That’s the difficult piece. But I’m not afraid to make these decisions.”
Pointing to a negative “everything is falling apart” attitude he has observed in Washington, D.C, Begich said, “You can think that or you can do something about it. … We have had plenty of ups and downs, but that doesn’t get us to move to the next state. There will be some big bumps coming, but we’ll be better for it.”
Additional information about Sen. Begich can be found at www.begich.senate.gov.
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.