Senator Murkowski E-Newsletter for May 5, 2015

Greetings, Alaska!

Last week I returned from a trip to Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada, where the United States assumed Chairmanship of the Arctic Council. The Arctic Council is comprised of the eight Arctic nations which come together to cooperate and collaborate on issues facing the North. Taking the lead of the Arctic Council for the next two years provides an opportunity for us to make the Arctic a national priority.

I continue to press the administration on our preparedness to take on our obligations as an Arctic nation. How we care for the people, the environment, and the economy is part of our challenge.

The Arctic Council’s work and conversations are important because it creates a framework of how the world approaches the Arctic region – and allows for America to assert our rightful leadership position in determining global practices.  International partnerships are created throughout the Arctic nations, and we can learn from one another what works and what doesn’t.

Here’s a few pictures from my brief, but important, trip to Iqaluit:

(Some of the local people from Iqaluit greeted us in traditional seal skin and showed us their Native way of life.)

(With Secretary of State John Kerry and Senator Angus King on the flight to Iqaluit.)

(Meeting with Senator Angus King; Peter Taptuna, Premier of Nunavut; Bob McLeod, Premier of Northwest Territories; and Bruce Heyman, the U.S. Ambassador to Canada.)

The F-16s Are Staying Put

Alaska is the most strategic location on the planet when it comes to providing for our nation’s defense. The recent aggressive behavior by both Russia and North Korea have underscored the national priority to watch the Asia Pacific region with great interest – and fortify the Alaska military footprint.

That’s why I joined Senator Dan Sullivan and Congressman Don Young in announcing the news that the F-16 Aggressor Squadron will remain at Eielson Air Force Base for the long-term future.  This was an opportunity for the entire Interior population to exhale for a moment and realize that our years of advocacy succeeded in communicating the importance of Alaska’s strong military community, strategic location, and superb training spaces.

The Air Force now knows what we all know: America needs Eielson.

Providing Care for Alaska’s Seniors, Support for Our Rural Schools

Earlier this month, the Senate voted to pass the Medicare and CHIP Reauthorization Act, which does a few things that are important for Alaska.  First it reforms how doctors are paid under Medicare, after years of there being a gap between what doctors were charging and how much the government was reimbursing them. Alaska’s seniors have traditionally faced difficulty in finding a doctor who will accept Medicare eligible individuals, due in part to this reimbursement discrepancy. This legislation is a victory for Alaska’s seniors, as it brings more certainty to the Medicare system and provides better access to care for older Alaskans.

At the same time we addressed seniors, we were able to fund a temporary fix to help schools for our younger Alaskans. This bill also includes a two-year extension of the Secure Rural Schools program. Under this program, the U.S. Forest Service provides roughly $12 million a year in payments to Alaska communities near the Tongass and Chugach National Forests for their public schools and roads. The Secure Rural Schools program has historically shared revenue from U.S. Forest Service timber sales with local governments and schools near the national forests. This two-year funding bill is a positive for these communities, but only a temporary fix to a problem that has grown steadily worse over the years with the decline in timber receipts.

Our Veterans are Not Numbers

Veterans statewide deserve quality care that they earned in their service to our grateful nation.  Like Alaskans and Americans across the country, I have been frustrated by reports of the Veterans Administration faking wait times, and the general lack of accountability from some who work at VA centers.

While it’s important the VA works to cut wait times and see as many veterans as possible, it is vital to maintain the ‘human touch’ when working face-to-face with the men and women seeking care. That means treating our vets with dignity and respect, not as just as a number. This is not only important for our honored veterans but for those who provide the care as well.

I shared my concern with VA Secretary McDonald at a hearing last week, and he concurred.

(The VA should make sure to strike the right balance between efficient care and not making vets feel like a number. Click to watch.)

Getting Rid of No Child Left Behind

Have I mentioned lately that the Senate is really getting back to work? On top of all the legislation that has been passed on the Senate floor – and amendments voted on – we have been busy in committees, working to make lives better for Alaskans. Case in point: the Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee (HELP) passed the Every Child Achieves Act last week—the antidote to the flawed No Child Left Behind bill, and now it heads to the Senate for consideration and a vote.

Under No Child Left Behind, nobody was happy. Not educators, students, parents or tribes. The one-size-fits-all mandates, poor tribal consultation, and lack of state and local control over our children’s education were not working. I was proud to cast my vote in the committee for the Every Child Achieves Act to get the federal government out of the way and makes sure the Secretary of Education cannot dictate the evaluations and accountability standards 3,000 miles away from Alaska’s classrooms. (Click here to find out what other groups think of the bill.)

(We owe our students and their teachers the best policies we can craft to deliver high quality, effective education.)

Continuing the Fight against ALS

A few Saturdays ago, dozens of my current and former staff members participated in the Young Faces of ALS Corntoss Tournament, which raised over $12,000 to go towards critical research to fight this terrible disease. ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, afflicts 5,600 people a year (an average of 15 people a day) and no known cure or treatment has been found since it was named over 70 years ago. Events like this and the Ice Bucket Challenge help, but we’ve still got a long way to go when it comes to researching and find a cure for ALS once and for all.

(I joined my cousin Jenny, whose husband Pat passed away from ALS, to discuss the importance of funding research to fight this disease. Click on the image to watch.)

Out and About in Alaska...

Watching Hoops!

While many Americans across the nation might spend a lot of time in March filling out brackets and going ‘basketball crazy’, our March Madness in Alaska is much more up my alley. It was great to see hundreds of Alaskans show up to cheer on the teams during the ASAA March Madness Alaska Basketball State Championships, including my old high school Monroe Catholic in Fairbanks. Great game…congrats to the Barrow Whalers!

(At the Alaska State Basketball Tourney I met Tatyana McFadden, winner of 11 Paralympic medals, including a silver at Sochi! She’s an inspirational woman and a world-class athlete.)

(With teams coming all the way from Barrow, Ketchikan, Sitka, and Fairbanks for basketball state champs, the Sullivan arena turns into a great place to catch up with friends from all across the state.)

Visiting the Dena'ina Wellness Center

When I was in Kenai, I had the opportunity to tour the new Dena’ina Wellness Center, owned and operated by the Kenaitze Indian Tribe. It’s an incredible 52,000 square foot facility with some truly remarkable features. They’ve used wood reclaimed from a 100-year-old fish cannery as part of the structure, design elements of a traditional Dena’ina fish drying rack, and also have Native art on display. What’s even more impressive though is that since opening up this new facility a year ago, the Center has doubled their medical staff and on average, see around fifty new patients a month. I’m happy to see how this building made it possible to have medical, dental, wellness, and behavior health services all under one roof.

(With Executive Director Jaylene Peterson-Nyren, Health Systems Director Dr. John Molina and Social Services Director Analisa Selden.)

(Jaylene Peterson-Nyrene and Marilou Bottorf in front of the art display at the Wellness Center.)

Checking Out the Kenai Refuge Visitor Center

The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge new visitor’s center in Soldotna officially opens up at the end of May, and I was fortunate to get an early sneak peak. The Kenai NWR is a land full of awe-inspiring beauty—both in the scenery and wildlife— and the visitor’s center certainly showcases that. I can see why it’s the most-visited national wildlife refuge in the state, and know this new facility will be informative and draw in even more visitors than before!

(Tactile displays share Kenai’s history.)

(A topographical map on display at the visitor center shows just how vast and diverse the Kenai NWR really is—all 1.92 million acres of it!)

(The refuge visitor’s center includes examples of every major Alaska habitat type – from ice fields, mountain tundra, rivers, and forest.)

Learning From Kenai Peninsula College

We all want strong job opportunities in Alaska for the next generation, so it’s important that we provide excellent education to equip young people with the skills required for those jobs. During my time on the Kenai Peninsula, I spoke to students and faculty at UAA’s Kenai Peninsula College campus, about how education must remain a priority.

Throughout the last 50 years, Kenai Peninsula College has grown tremendously, from offering only a handful of classes to what it is now—a multi-campus system serving more than 2,800 students each semester. I toured the new on campus housing and the Career Technical Education Center, home to the Process Technology program, pictured below. KPC’s educators are preparing students for employment in industries that are vital to our state, and they are doing it through experiential teaching and application. I have to say, I was extremely impressed.

(This building accommodates labs, simulators, and hands on learning that mirror the actual workplace.)

(KPC’s Process Technology program recently received a national industry certification from the North American Process Technology Alliance – one of only several colleges in the nation to receive the NAPTA endorsement.)

Tasting Some Samples in Soldotna

As Co-Chair of the Senate Small Brewers Caucus, I am always talking up Alaska’s thriving craft brewery scene. In Soldotna, I visited the Kenai Peninsula Brewing Company and talked to the owners about their business, toured the facility … and tasted their locally made product. There’s one common denominator among these breweries across our state: these small business owners are instilling a sense of local pride in our communities by touting their unique personality, which was definitely true at the Kenai Peninsula Brewing Company.

(I love to see how Alaska entrepreneurs are constantly growing and expanding their businesses. Since opening less than a decade ago, the Kenai Peninsula Brewing Company added a new tasting room, a perfect spot for locals to take a break after work.)

(Wendell and Wendy Dutcher and Doug and Amy Hogue have been co-owners of the Kenai River Brewing Co. for nine years now. They have been known to create beer for local events, like the Frozen River Fest this winter.)

Checking In with Lynden Transport

It was nice to see the Lynden family of companies in Fairbanks: AK West Trucking and AK Marine Lines. Like many companies in Alaska, they work hard to meet the rigorous standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. Lynden conducts in-house training, including daily safety meetings, so their workers are able to be on the North Slope.

(Not enough credit is given to these boots on the ground! Much like airplane mechanics keep pilots safe, these mechanics really keep things running.)

Watching Bonspiel

I attended the opening ceremonies of the 80th International Bonspiel at the Fairbanks Curling Club. 37 teams from around the state, and even Whitehorse, made the trip to Fairbanks to square off against each other in curling. In my opinion, it’s the perfect blend of fun and competitiveness!

(With Atticus Wallace and Quinn Evanson—two pretty serious and dedicated curlers! They’ve both competed at the national level.)

Reintroducing Wood Bison to Shageluk

I witnessed a historic event: wood bison being transported from the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC) near Portage out to the village of Shageluk in western Alaska – the first of 100 wood bison aimed at re-establishing a species that went extinct more than a century ago.  The state has been planning for more than 20 years to reintroduce wood bison back into the wild, to its natural U.S. habitat, after its disappearance for more than a century. It took six C-130 flights filled to get all 100 members of the AWCC wood bison herd, the largest land mammal in North America, to Western Alaska. Amazing! And congratulations to the 1st baby bison born just last week in the Innoko Refuge!

(Getting an up-close look at the wood bison before they were loaded up for transport from the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center back into the wild.)

(With Tom Yeager from AWCC. Tom is on site managing the day to day operations of the Center.) 

Visiting Schools Statewide

Many Alaskans know that I'm on a quest to visit every school in Alaska, to get to know tomorrow's leaders and visionaries. Unfortunately, questionable weather forced me to cancel my trip to Top of the Kuskokwim School in Nikolai and McGrath School. I’m thankful that Skype made it possible to catch up with students at both schools.

However, I was still able to stop by Lumen Christi High School in Anchorage and meet the students there. Talk about a plugged in group! These students asked some great questions—from net neutrality to ways to lower the budget deficit. It’s encouraging to see the future of our state in these students.

(I enjoyed my time with the students at Lumen Christi High School. A bright bunch of young Alaskans!)