Address to Alaska State Legislature

   Speaker Harris, President Green, members of the Alaska
Legislature, thank you for the invitation to be with you today.
• It is wonderful to be back with many of you with which I had
the privilege to serve. I commend you for your dedication to
your constituents and for continuing to work to make our
state the best place to live and raise a family. I also look out
and see many new faces in the crowd. I thank each of you
for stepping up and accepting the challenge of public service
– I’d like to tell you that working with these fine experienced
statesmen in the Alaska Legislature will be a rewarding and
fulfilling time in your lives. But let’s just leave it at good
• We’ve seen some changes in D.C. as well. Congress is now
under new management. This means that Ted, Don, and I no
longer set the agenda. But because of our consensus-based
process in the Senate, you can be assured that we will
continue to have a say in how the agenda moves forward.
Look no further than our insistence, and success, on
including small business tax relief in the minimum wage
legislation to see that we will not be a silent minority.
• But regardless of who is in control of Congress, Alaska
issues remain Alaska issues. The goals remain the same, but
we’re learning that our tactics must change.
• Our first shift in tactics is regarding the federal
appropriations process. The first bill the Senate took up this
year was lobbying and earmark reform. As you all know, the
term earmark has become akin to a curse word in D.C. lately
and there are some in Congress who would like to eliminate
all earmarks. I believe this is a knee-jerk reaction and is one
that I most certainly do not support.
• We use the term “earmark” liberally but it’s important to
understand what an earmark is in the definition of a
Congressional appropriation. Basically, an earmark is
simply a project or program that was not in the President’s
budget request but that Congress deemed worthy of funding.
When you eliminate earmarks, you take away the ability of
Congressional members who best know their state’s priorities
to weigh in on funding decisions, and allow the federal
agencies to set the priorities.
• We have been very fortunate in this State for all of the good
work that our senior Senator, Ted Stevens, has done in
directing federal dollars to meet Alaska’s needs. Hundreds if
not thousands of projects across Alaska have benefited as has
our economy. The Denali Commission came to life under
Senator Stevens’ watch and has been doing tremendous work
providing for basic infrastructure needs in rural Alaska. It is
unlikely that a federal agency based in D.C. would have
thought of, much less approved, an entity like the Denali
• Talk about moving away from local control – It is somewhat
ironic that in order to be considered a fiscal conservative in
Washington, D.C. these days, you must support increasing
the power and reach of the federal bureaucracies at the
expense of state and local interests. But that is becoming an
increasing reality – we will need to work ever closer with the
federal agencies responsible for distributing these funds.
• Under the Senate bill to address earmark reform, we have
required additional transparency in the process by publicly
identifying which member submits a specific funding
request, and requiring members to publish the justification
for why the earmark they support is a necessary project. This
is an approach I support and one we should have been
following long ago.
• Reality is, despite the process for defining how we provide
for funding in the nation our federal budget is leaner than
ever as we seek to balance the budget. With the growing
costs of entitlement programs such as Medicaid, Medicare,
and Social Security, as well as our military costs in Iraq and
Afghanistan, fewer direct spending opportunities will be
available. That is a reality that not just Alaskans, but folks
across the country will be facing. The competition for
federal dollars will be fierce and Alaskans need to be
prepared to make their pitch, not just to your Congressional
Delegation, but to the federal agency with jurisdiction over
your project.
• With that stiff competition, and the decrease in federal
expenditures, the reality is that we can expect less federal
investment in our State. But because of past decisions our
state is well positioned to take ore of a responsibility. With
the market value of the Permanent Fund at over $37 billion
and rising, we are in a desirable position. The question is
how do we follow the wisdom of our past leaders in making
this fund even more beneficial for Alaskans?
• That of course is a question for you and the people of Alaska
– not for the federal government. But I encourage you to
start the debate now. Even with a natural gas pipeline, we
cannot rely upon oil and gas to fund the state government
forever. Spending for our schools and infrastructure should
not be dependent upon the whims of a sheik in the Middle
East in setting the price of oil. Alternative funding streams
must be established and certainly the Permanent Fund must
be part of the discussion.
HELP Committee
• I’d like to take a moment and address health care.
Unfortunately we don’t have health care in the U.S. - - we
have sick care.
• I believe that health care delivery in Alaska is in a state of
crisis. On Tuesday, I conducted a field hearing in Anchorage
of the Senate HELP Committee. The testimony from that
hearing should be a wake up call to all of Alaska.
• We heard from seniors and senior advocates groups relaying
story after story of how the elderly of Alaska can’t find a
Medicare physician to treat them.
• We heard patients in rural Alaska face equally severe access
problems and learned that they often are forced to go without
care entirely.
• We heard from physicians who say that Medicare reimburses
them only 40% of what it costs them to treat patients.
• We heard that Anchorage has the sixth lowest physician-topatient-
ratio in the nation, and outside of Anchorage, it’s the
lowest in the nation.
• We heard that fewer Alaskans are accepted into Medical
School than any other state in the nation.
• And, we heard the dire predictions that a “perfect storm” is
forming, and the health care crisis will only get much worse
before it gets better.
• This situation is intolerable. For the sake of Alaska’s seniors
and patients in rural Alaska, we must quell this storm. To do
that, it will take great effort from both a Federal and State
level. I commit to you that I will do all I can at a Federal
level to improve the health care shortage crisis in Alaska.
And, I hope that I can receive the same commitment from
you at a state level.
• A critical first step is to help fund the expansion of Alaska’s
Family Medicine Residency Program. This bright spot in the
bleak outlook for Alaska, boasts that 75% of its resident
students remain in Alaska to practice medicine. And over
half of those practice in rural Alaska. We couldn’t ask for a
better rate of return for both our state and federal dollars and
I look forward to working with you to help strengthen this
critical program.
• Soon I will introduce the Physician Shortage Elimination
Act, which, if enacted, will help Alaska’s immediate and
long-term health care needs. What we’ve done is identify
programs that have been successful in the past but have been
underutilized such as the National Health Service Corp. The
legislation will provide new investments in residency
programs, grants and services that have been successful in
meeting the health needs of rural America.
• One specific aspect of the legislation will be to bolster the
cornerstone of health care in rural Alaska - - the community
health center. Through grants, community health centers will
be able to increase their ability to recruit physicians and
improve their critical primary care services. I commit to
rural Alaska that I will do all I can to at a federal level to
improve funding for community health centers. And, I ask
the state of Alaska to make that same pledge of support at a
state level. I know the Palin Administration has convened a
health care task force. I commend our Governor, and I look
forward to the recommendations from the task force on how
the state can address this critical need.
• Another important role that the HELP Committee plays is in
reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act. I have been
working with the State Department of Education, school
superintendents and school boards and teachers to identify
ways we can strengthen this law and make it more practical
for Alaska.
• When Congress returns to session next week I will be
introducing legislation to amend the NCLB to address
Alaska’s needs; including the ability to use a growth model
that tracks individual student progress, provides flexibility on
highly qualified teacher requirements, and provides
flexibility in calculating average yearly progress for special
education and Limited English Proficient students.
• Now, I do not expect Congress to enact an Alaska-only fix to
NCLB, but with NCLB up for renewal this year, the Senate
Health and Education Committee will be drafting
reauthorization legislation and my bill provides a marker to
be included in an overall package.
• In addition, we are also working to increase college
affordability and access while reducing student debt through
the Higher Education Reauthorization Act. Early childhood
programs must also be improved and expanded and we are
working on that by reauthorizing the Head Start program.
Gas Pipeline/Energy
• Last year I spoke of the need to reach an agreement on the
construction of an Alaska natural gas pipeline. That has not
changed, and if anything it has become even more urgent an
issue to address.
• As you all know, the latest Federal Energy Regulatory
Commission report to Congress on progress made toward
constructing an Alaska natural gas pipeline says that the
“prospects of an application are more remote than a year
ago.” That concerns me, and it should concern you.
• Clearly, the construction of an Alaska natural gas pipeline is
important to America, but America will not wait on Alaska
• Last summer the FERC noted that there is over 6,000 trillion
cubic feet of natural gas awaiting sale worldwide. Alaska’s
35 trillion cubic feet seems tiny by comparison. FERC this
summer approved five new LNG terminals with another 18
LNG projects nearing approval. Companies are locking in 25
and 30 year contracts to import LNG from overseas.
Investment in coal-fired and nuclear plants is increasing as
they are viewed as alternative sources of energy.
• If the promise of Alaska’s gas continues to remain in limbo,
investors will look elsewhere for development opportunities,
and consumers will look to other supply sources. I firmly
believe that Alaska’s window of opportunity is closing and
action on a gas pipeline is needed now.
• I am not suggesting that Alaska should concede to any and all
conditions put forward by the oil and gas industry in order to
reach an agreement. Far from it. It is imperative that any
pipeline deal benefit the State of Alaska and its citizens, but
also a deal that maintains Alaska’s position as a state
America can count on to provide a secure source of energy. I
look forward to working wth all of you and the Palin
Administration as we move forward on this critical issue.
• Yet, we must not be on a single track in terms of energy
development. Alaska has more than oil and gas on the North
Slope to provide energy for our residents and the rest of the
nation. Alaska is rich in sources of renewable energy. From
the wind in the west – to our tremendous tides in southcentral
– to our geothermal springs throughout the State, Alaska has
potential to be a leader in alternative energy development.
• We have the resources, we have the conditions to field-test
new technologies, and the need to bring cheaper energy to
our rural areas is more pressing than ever. To be dependent
on foreign leaders such as Hugo Chavez for our energy needs
is not a position that Alaska, nor the nation, should be in.
• From the federal end, I recently introduced the REFRESH
Act to provide federal assistance to developing alternative
energy from these resources. The bill authorizes grant
funding for geothermal and ocean energy development and
expands energy tax credits to cover these alternative forms of
energy. It also redefines small irrigation power to make
many of the small hydro sites across Alaska eligible for grant
• I encourage the State to not view this as solely a federal
government priority. It should be a state priority as well.
Take the initiative, be out in front on this; make private
sector investment in Alaska on these projects a welcome
proposition. I will push on my end in Washington. I need
your assistance in the State to show we are serious about
being on the forefront of alternative energy technology.
• By far, the single biggest issue we are dealing with right now
in Congress continues to be our policy in Iraq.
• First, let me tell you how proud I am of those forces from
Alaska who are playing a role in this mission; we read a lot
about the forces of the 172nd Stryker Brigade out of Fort
Wainwright and the 4-25th paratroopers out of Fort
Richardson and their heroic efforts. But we also have
hundreds of Alaskan men and women representing
communities across the state who are members of our Army
National Guard.
• I had the opportunity to travel to Camp Shelby in October to
attend a ceremony honoring 600 soldiers in the 3rd Battalion,
297th Infantry of the Alaskan National Guard. The soldiers
come from more than 80 communities throughout the state
and represent an array of Alaskan cultures. For those of you
who don’t know, Camp Shelby is located in Mississippi –
and on that particular day it was hot. Here I was meeting
with soldiers from Chevak, Hooper Bay, Nome even the
Mayor of Buckland was there – these were clearly men and
women who are not accustomed to the heat of the deep
South. As they stood in formation soaked in sweat they
beamed with confidence. They made me so proud to be an
Alaskan and I assured them that all of us in Alaska are
behind them and that we appreciate their efforts and sacrifice.
• Of course we all support the troops and it’s easy to say it, but
on that particular day I had proof. When word got out that
we were headed to Mississippi communities in rural Alaska
began putting together care packages for the troops. We
ended up complimenting the usual bar-b-q fare of hot dogs
and burgers with maktak from Barrow, dried caribou from
Kotzebue and smoked salmon from the Yukon Kuskokwim
Delta. The efforts went a long way in showing our brave
soldiers that we are all behind them and that we look forward
to their safe return home.
• Of course not all of the gatherings I have attended related to
the war in Iraq have been days for celebration. I have also
attended funeral services for those who have paid the
ultimate sacrifice and met with the widows and families of
servicemen no longer with us. Knowing the extreme sacrifice
that our troops and their families make, it is critical to review
and assess our strategies and policies in Iraq to make certain
that we remain on the right track.
• That debate has consumed Congress of late – and rightly so –
as we struggle to reach some sort of consensus.
• While I have questioned whether we will see different results
in Baghdad simply by increasing the number of forces on the
ground, I believe too much attention has been focused on the
surge and not enough on the long-term strategy.
• In this day of instant messaging, 24-hour service, and
communications equipment that will find you regardless of
where you go, we tend to expect instantaneous results. But
achieving success has not been, and will not be,
instantaneous. The steps we are taking in Iraq must have the
roots to remain standing when the outside support is taken
away. Too often we have strived for the immediate result
• But regardless of our strategy, or the tactics we employ, any
chance for success in Iraq is wholly dependent on the
willingness of Iraq’s political leaders to make tough, farreaching
decisions – and follow through with action. On
that, we are all in agreement.
• In Congress, we must be mindful of the words that we use –
whether in statements, debate, or legislation. They must not
imply a lack of support for our troops, nor for the families
and loved ones that must make do while they are deployed.
And most importantly, we must not cut off funding for our
• I cannot offer enough praise for Alaska’s men and women
who are serving, and have served, their country. We honor
their achievements, we mourn for those who have paid the
ultimate sacrifice, and we look forward for their safe return
• I must not leave on such a somber topic. There is, of course,
good news to report. Despite the on-going conflict in the
Middle East, the American spirit has endured. When we
were attacked on 9-11 – the terrorists chose the world trade
center because it is a symbol of our economic strength.
They had hoped to cripple our Nation. Well the American
people have not let them. Our economy has rebounded from
its lows after the attack, and we have now seen robust growth
in employment, in our stock market and in our receipts to the
United States Treasury. The American people were
challenged on 9-11 and we have faced that adversity and
triumphed. I know, together, we can meet the challenges I
described today to provide for a healthy, educated and
prosperous State of Alaska.
• Thank you again for your time and this opportunity to
address you today.