2017 Address to Alaska State Legislature
Good morning. It really is a pleasure to be back. Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, thank you for the opportunity to be with you. My fellow legislators, my friends, it is wonderful to be back home, and here with all of you, as we renew our annual conversation about the future of our state.
Things look pretty good around here. You’ve got some new equipment, some new hardware. You’ve got some new faces, and I welcome each of you. And you have some very familiar faces, and it’s good to be back with you. To those who are new, you have my congratulations. You are representing our state at an amazing time. As we use the Chinese proverb “may you live in interesting times” – well we’re all living in interesting times. So thank you to those who are new and to those who are continuing your service, you truly have my gratitude. And no matter how long you have been here, whichever caucus you are with, you have my respect and you clearly have my best wishes for success.
You all know that I have to start off my speech by telling you about my family. But really, it’s the part of my life that matters most, and I know for you it defines who we are. Happy to report that Verne, Nic, and Matt are all doing well. They’re doing very well. My folks are doing well – Mom is getting new knees and Dad still hasn’t figured out what retirement means. But they’re doing well.
I want to introduce some of the folks who are with me here today, working for me not only here in the state but back in Washington, D.C. Mike Pawlowski, my chief of staff, no stranger to anyone here in Juneau. Chelsea Holt, my health care advisor, from Delta Junction and Fairbanks. Greg Bringhurst, my Native affairs advisor, also from Fairbanks. Severin Wiggenhorn, my oil, gas, and mining counsel, from Anchorage. And Connie McKenzie, who is well known to you here in Juneau as my representative. Good folks that are helping me, helping you, helping us with Alaska. Thank you.
Last year, joining me in the gallery was John Sturgeon. John, at one point in time, was a regular Alaskan who became legendary as he battled federal overreach all the way to the United States Supreme Court. This year, I had hoped to bring a new friend to introduce to you – also a fellow westerner, a true public servant, and our nation’s next Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke.
Representative Zinke wanted to be here. He had booked his flights out, he had worked his schedule. He wanted to set the right tone, and Alaska was going to be part of his very first trip as Secretary of the Interior. His first meeting in the state was to be with the Alaska Federation of Natives. He was going to spend time with each of you, meet with the Governor, and he was going to have an opportunity to go up to Anchorage and be with Interior Department personnel in the state.
I’m obviously disappointed that he isn’t here. The reason he’s not is because we did not get his confirmation through the process before we adjourned for recess. I’m disappointed at the delays that have prevented the confirmation. It’s probably fair to say that not every nominee deserves swift and rapid confirmation, but I think that Representative Zinke is one of those who does. When he does come to the floor, and I believe that will be probably Tuesday or perhaps Wednesday, I think you will see that he’ll enjoy bipartisan support.
The reason I’m eager to start working with Cabinet officials like Representative Zinke – when he is officially becomes Secretary – is that our challenges here in the state are enormous, they are real, and they are pressing. You know that. Alaska is in a recession. We have the highest unemployment rate in the country right now. And we face a multi-billion dollar budget deficit that has left this Legislature, left you, left our state, with nothing but difficult choices. You all know that.
Today we see that reality reflected in the attitudes of many Alaskans, who love our state but have very deep and very real concerns about the future. There is an undercurrent of anxiety running through much of our state right now. I think you would agree with me that it will take all of us working together to resolve it.
That is why my focus – at the start of a new term, a new Congress, and a new administration – is to do everything that I can to truly empower Alaskans.
To reduce the federal government’s influence and control over our lives.
To help create new economic opportunities.
And in accomplishing that, to fulfill the promises that were made to us at statehood.
Our first task is really to restore access to our lands and waters. I don’t need to tick through the long list of restrictions, delays, and denials that we have endured as a state over these recent years. King Cove is probably the first example of that, and I see Gary and Amber there in the gallery – glad that you made it out of King Cove, hopefully you make it safely back into King Cove. But that’s just case in point of what we’ve had to endure, particularly in that small community. It’s also what we have faced on the North Slope, here in Southeast, and really all across our state.
On lands issues, in particular, we have suffered from this federal mentality of the need to “protect Alaska from Alaskans” rather than “helping Alaskans build Alaska.” That’s what we need to be doing – helping Alaskans build Alaska, build our state. It was not supposed to be this way. It was not supposed to be that way, and that’s not how we should allow it going forward. So, here is the plan with this new administration, with this new Congress.
We will start here in Alaska by working to restore throughput to our Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, it is possible, and it will be done. Not every step will be big; some will feel quite small. But we can now work with our federal partners to put projects like GMT-2 back on track. We can ensure that additional development on state lands, Conoco’s Willow project, and Caelus’ discovery in Smith Bay all proceed in a timely manner. We can restore access to our Arctic waters and lease them for future production. And we can, and we will, bring the 1002 Area of ANWR back into the conversation and seek to finally allow production in this area.
We have opportunities folks. At the same time we are focusing on oil and gas, we must do more to work to realize Alaska’s world-class mineral potential, whether we are talking about a gold mine in Southwest, a graphite deposit near Nome, or rare earths here in Southeast. At the federal level, we need to modernize our policies and reform our permitting process so that we can produce more. Our potential is there, it’s huge, it’s real. Working to do that together has got to be a priority for us. We will not trade salmon for minerals or harm subsistence lifestyles – but we will insist that our Canadian neighbors, upstream and across the border, match our environmental standards at their own mines. That has to be a priority as well.
We can also help our ailing timber industry. We see that impact very keenly down there. I have already spoken with Governor Perdue, who has been nominated to be the Secretary of Agriculture. I am not against a transition to young-growth timber in the Tongass. But it has to be proven to work on the ground, not just on paper. We need to have a real inventory. It has to be an honest inventory. And we must increase our harvest levels, starting now. We can do that by way of what we call bridge timber, the Mental Health Trust land exchange will provide some of that. We’re working with Senator Stedman on that, I think we had good news recently that will allow us to move forward. But that’s not enough to keep our small mills going.
While we work on forestry reforms, I will do my best to maintain the Secure Rural Schools funding program. I know that for so many in Southeast this is a big priority. Our small communities rely on its funding to maintain roads and to keep schools open.
Managing our forests for multiple use also means that our federal agencies have a responsibility to do better by our recreation and tourism industries, as well. Whether it’s streamlining the permitting process to allow for increased access to our scenic areas, this also will go a long way towards recognizing the opportunities and values these businesses generate – whether you’re an air taxi service operatory down in Ketchikan trying to take folks to Misty Fiords or a hunting guide outfitter up on the Kenai Peninsula. We have to do more to provide these opportunities and our federal agencies have a clear role in doing that.
As we access more of our resources, we can also partner with the federal government to tackle another major problem that we face here in our state, and that is our high energy costs, particularly in our rural areas. When a gallon of diesel still costs $5 or $7 or more it’s factored into everything – price of goods and services. It devours family budgets. It limits opportunity. And it unfortunately forces far too many to move away from their communities.
When we talk about the path forward, and what we can do to make a difference here, I talked last year about the opportunities that this energy bill that I was working on presented us as a state. No one, believe me no one, was more disappointed when this bipartisan energy bill stalled at the one-yard line last year. But I’m going to be bringing it back, or certainly the major pieces of it, because it will help to empower Alaskans, rural Alaskans. And I have already spoken to Governor Perry, who has been nominated as Secretary of Energy – we hope to get his confirmation through soon, but we’ve talked about a real mission for the Department of Energy in the state of Alaska. DOE needs to come in and be that meaningful partner, working with the institutions of our state. Doing this, we can work together to bring down the cost of new technologies and find some innovative mechanisms to deploy them. As that unfolds, Alaska can be the Department’s proving ground, the country’s proving ground, as a first choice for new projects that will help make a difference when it comes to our energy bills.
So know that I’m hearing you folks, in terms of what the priorities are.
Cathy and John, know that I hear you – we need to be producing more oil and gas from federal areas.
Bert, I hear you loud and clear – we have to increase the timber harvest here in Southeast.
And Lyman, I hear you – we must address the crisis of rural energy costs.
But that’s not all we can do to help empower Alaskans.
Healthcare – the Congress is spending a great deal of time on health care, and will be over the next year. This is another area where Alaskans must take greater control of our own future. The Affordable Care Act, quite honestly, has failed to deliver affordable care to many people in our state. Too many Alaskans are facing crushing premium hikes. All but one insurer has withdrawn from the marketplace. And unfortunately if you are part of the individual market, things are getting worse and not better.
And when we talk about the Affordable Care Act and where we go next, what we do, in the conversations that I am a part of and leading, I am insisting that there are elements of the ACA that must be saved, that must be preserved. For example, we must continue to prohibit insurers from discriminating against pre-existing conditions. We must retain mental health parity. And we must allow those under 26 to remain on their parents’ insurance.
As we engage in this debate over repeal and replace, or whatever the terminology is that you care to use, the discussion that is the elephant in the room is Medicaid expansion. Here in Alaska, some 27,000 Alaskans – 28,000 actually – now have coverage for the first time. Which means they have access to care for the first time. While I clearly have concerns about the expansion’s long-term costs, it has strengthened our Native health system and reduced the number of uninsured that are coming into our emergency rooms. So as long as this Legislature wants to keep the expansion, Alaska should have the option – so I will not vote to repeal it.
I’m going to be having discussions this afternoon with some of you on just this issue, relating to health care but more particularly to Medicaid expansion, and I really welcome that further discussion.
Another, perhaps call it an elephant in the room, subject that is brought up to me as I’m traveling around the state, and that is the discussion of defunding Planned Parenthood. I, for one, do not believe that Planned Parenthood has any place in our deliberations on the Affordable Care Act. Taxpayer dollars should not be used to pay for abortions, but I will not vote to deny Alaskans access to the health services that Planned Parenthood provides. On the whole discussion again about repeal and replace, I know that this has been a subject of concern and anxiety for many. I think most of you who know me, know that I will not support a reckless repeal process that leaves people hanging. Repeal must come along with a replacement that reforms and improves health care. That expands access, improves affordability, and provides the flexibility that Alaska needs to develop our solutions. What I want are stability, certainty, and health care policies that really work for us in this state, that work for all Alaskans. That’s the direction that we need to go.
That is what we did last year with education, when we returned control of the decisions that affect schools, educators, parents, and students back to Alaskans.
For the first time ever, the Every Student Succeeds Act included state legislators – included all of you – among a list of stakeholders that state education agencies have to consult with when implementing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. That gives you the opportunity to be involved, and the opportunity to bring the people that you represent to the table, to help meet the educational needs of Alaska’s young people.
I am also proud to say that for the first time, we required state agencies and local school districts to consult tribal representatives when crafting their plans. I think it’s time, probably high past time, for the federal government to recognize tribal self-determination in the area of education.
Every Alaskan needs to be involved in planning how we prepare our young people for the future. And if we are going to be digging ourselves out of our fiscal challenges, we need the next generation to be well-educated, well-trained, and highly motivated to help us all.
Another area where we can lead, and empower Alaskans, is through the development of a comprehensive strategy for the Arctic. Many of you have been engaged in this and I appreciate all that you have given to it. The United States’ tenure as Chair of the Arctic Council is almost over, we’ll be turning over the gavel in May up in Fairbanks, but in many ways, we have accomplished less than I hoped. We still lack a blueprint that recognizes both our needs and our opportunities – a good plan for the development of telecom infrastructure, deepwater ports, icebreakers, response capabilities – we can and should do more.
While this Legislature developed an Arctic policy, most discussions at the federal level were dominated by climate change – this is a real issue, but it is not the only issue. And even more concerning, the focus was often on how to stop economic development, rather than finding the right way for it to proceed responsibly.
The status of our Arctic strategy is a good reminder that if we want something done, let’s do it ourselves. I am looking to the work you have done here and will be proposing a plan to the Trump administration that emphasizes partnership over partisanship, progress over process, and meaningful consultation over convenient conversations. So we’re going to continue to push on this agenda and I look forward to working with so many of you on that.
We know that our geographic location at the top of the world has also positioned Alaska to remain the best place for our military to call home. The men and women who serve us so honorably, so many of them come here to Alaska and serve, and decide this is where they will call home for themselves and their families. It honors us. When we think about what we’ve done in this state to really ensure the strength of our military, here in this country and abroad, our successes in this area are real, and they will resonate through our security and our economy long into the future.
JBER is going strong, including the 4th Airborne Brigade Combat Team, which was threatened with downsizing just a few years ago. Eielson will see the great benefit of the addition of 54 F-35s. Thank you to so many who led on that, John. Fort Wainwright just hosted a worldwide symposium on operating in the high altitude cold and is becoming a center of excellence in this field. The radars at Clear and Shemya are on 24-hour watch for North Korean missile activity. The interceptors at Fort Greely are ready to shoot down an incoming missile. Construction of the new Long Range Discrimination Radar at Clear is moving forward. And the Kodiak spaceport will undertake a new mission for the Missile Defense Agency, testing the THAAD interceptor. There is so much that is going on when it comes to our nation’s security.
I’m watching the clock Mr. President and Mr. Speaker and we know there are many additional areas where we can work to empower Alaskans – our rural residents, our young people, our fishermen, our farmers, and our small business owners – but the full list of work that my team and I are engaged in is far longer than I have time allowed this morning.
What I want to leave you with is that in many ways, the conditions that we face are improving at the federal level. The next several years hold much economic promise for us as a state. Comprehensive tax reform and a broad infrastructure package are just the start of what lies ahead. And we have new partners, some confirmed and some not quite there yet, ready to work with us to achieve our goals.
We know there will still be plenty of storms to navigate. Not everything that we do or accomplish will feel like a big victory, but we have to remember that every degree we turn the wheel, turns the ship. And for the first time in a long time, Alaskans, not just outside interests, will be given a chance to take that wheel.
I can’t wait to work with all of you here in the legislature – along with Senator Sullivan, Congressman Young, and Governor Walker – to make the most of the opportunities that lie ahead.