U.S. Senator Mark Begich was in Homer over the weekend to provide an update on what’s happening in Washington, DC. He also spent his time during the town hall forum to talk about his expectations for Alaska.
A crowd of about 50 people gathered at the Kachemak Bay Campus Sunday afternoon to connect with the senator. Begich started out discussing the most recent announcement from the United States Postal Service regarding ending Saturday mail delivery, the need for Congress to tighten the purse strings on federal coffers and the upcoming March 1 sequestration deadline, which is when a series of automatic spending cuts go into effect unless Congress acts to prevent them.
Then he switched gears to focus in on what’s happening in Alaska. This brought up topics like best practices for managing oil and gas development, concerns about ocean acidification and overall climate change, and the need to invest more funds into port infrastructure.
“Port infrastructure is critical. Not only here in Alaska, but across this country. We’ll fund roads, we’ll fund bicycle trails, we’ll do all that. But when it comes to ports, they have to fend for themselves,” he said. “That is a problem because it is a huge part of our economic engine.”
Begich said Alaska’s ports are under capacity to house fishing vessels or fleets owned by oil and gas companies. He says that puts the state at an economic disadvantage and he is currently putting together a new program that could help pull in more money.
“There are two or three programs now that exist in the federal government on ports, but they’re kind of dysfunctional. There are little bits here like loan guarantees, some grant money, but it’s not significant. So we think there’s a way to combine these three and then look at a funding stream that can leverage against local or state dollars or low-interest loans that can actually accelerate some of the port redevelopment,” he said.
Begich said he expects to roll out a plan in the next few months. He also mentioned the need for additional funding to help with tsunami debris clean-up, which he called a “slow disaster.”
Begich said he plans to bring that topic back up again to the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard. He serves as chair for that committee. There also was a question from an audience member who was concerned that Coast Guard members in the state were overworked.
“We just did the reauthorization bill. It’s a two year bill that gives the Coast Guard the authority to do certain things. We actually upped the amount of money,” he said.
“We know their expanded need in services. Also the disasters that are not only happening here, but around the country that they need to respond to. We’ve also put some other language in the bill for them to do a full analysis of the impact of the Arctic in future resource needs.”
Begich said he thinks the increased activity in the Arctic Ocean may give him the leverage needed to focus on Coast Guard needs like additional shipbuilding and housing. The majority of Begich’s comments focused on Alaska’s future, which he says isn’t on the forefront of enough state lawmakers’ agendas.
“We are no longer bold thinkers in this state in a lot of ways. Our elected officials, they think about just today, about tomorrow’s piece of legislation, about the budget next week. This state, this community, didn’t get built on those ideas. They got built on thinking about the next 20 years. The next 30 years. I would challenge you to ask any legislator from any area in Alaska, where do you see Alaska in the next 20 years,” he said.
Begich will be able to ask lawmakers that question himself when he speaks with members of the Alaska Legislature next month.