May 31, 2012 | Vol. 39, No. 23

Senator Begich talks about local issues & funding needs

U.S. Senator Mark Begich-D had a busy Memorial Day weekend, but made a stop in Petersburg. While he was in town, Begich met with officials and toured several city facilities.

Suzanne Ashe
Senator Mark Begich (left) drops buy the Salmon Derby weigh in station on Sunday.

“We got to see a lot of the facilities, the new facilities, also the old ones. We got to tour the police station, which is in desperate need of help to say the least,” he said during an interview at the Harbormaster’s office.

Begich, 50, who is serving with Lisa Murkowski, said he was “unsure” if there would be any Federal funds available toward the design and construction of a new police department, but he said the Senate would do what they could to help.

“It’s impressive to see the community and the investments they are making and some of the infrastructure,” he said. “We walked through the new fire station, it’s unbelievable. It’s a perfect facility for the community, and has a lot of good equipment in there.”

Under his watch, Begich has aided in securing $3.4 million in Federal funding for the North Harbor dredging, as well as a grant for the new library.

"We were talking to the folks that were raising money for the library. We had about $200,000 from the USDA that we were able to put in that... We are very excited for that facility,” he said.

The Senator’s visit happened to coincide with the Salmon Derby. Issues that concern sports fishermen and commercial fishermen were also addressed.

Begich said he has concerns over Southeast Alaska’s growing sea otter population.

As Begich describes it, harvesting sea otters is not a bad thing, but explaining that to the folks in Washington D.C. is difficult.

“We actually talked to the federal government folks in regards to how to manage [the sea otters]. It’s hard to explain that harvesting them isn’t a bad thing, it’s actually a good thing. It helps put some balance back into the ocean. But also, if we are able to work with the native communities, I think there’s a great way to take in those pelts, and utilize them in a commercial way that benefits the Native community,” he said. “So, we’ve recommended some ideas and we’re definitely following this because we know what it’s doing to the harvest, especially the shellfish,” he said, adding that current regulations are discouraging to those who would hope to gain from harvesting the pelts.

“We’ve talked to the Interior Department about this, we’ve sent letters. There is an effort within the Interior Department to review how we describe, or how we attach, Alaskan Native crafts to the utilization of the pelts. Because if we can’t really harvest them and then use the pelts to sell, then you end up with [a group] that’s not very interested in participating.”

According to Begich, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar met with the Alaska Federation Native Board to talk about this issue, and he said, that he was committed to follow up on the process.

“Again, trying to explain this issue to them (other lawmakers), it’s hard for them to grasp. They see them in zoos, they see them in movies, then they say ‘What do you mean you want to harvest them?’ Because there’s too many of them,” Begich said.

Begich said his priorities are the Alaska Marine Highway, and the effort to renew the Secure Rural Schools Act, which is a major source of school funding.

Begich said, he loves riding the ferry and is happy about the Alaska Class Ferry. In 2009, the Senator, his wife and their young son, took the ferry as the first leg of a 19-day road trip to Washington D.C.

“We are very happy that there are new ferries being constructed,” he said. “Knowing there is this new series of Alaska Class Ferries being built, and being built right around the corner, Ketchikan, but being built with Alaska labor, Alaska equipment, and Alaska business, I think is a good thing.”

He said that changing the way the ferry system is treated in the Transportation Bill, so it’s not just an extra add-on, but in this case as a road on the water, is a priority.

“That will help stabilize funding for the ferry system. The state has a huge role, but this is the thing we wanted to do as we talk transportation, is not have the ferry be a secondary thought, but actually a more stabilized funding source,” he said. “By the end of June, hopefully, we’ll be able to pass this bill. We’ve talked to the DOT, they really appreciate the language we’ve been able to work in this, because it will give them more certainty, and because it will give them more stability in the funding from the federal government. But we’re just a part of it,” he added.

The Senate approved a two-year, $109 billion Transportation and Infrastructure Bill in March.

Attached to the bill, as a rider, is a one-year extension of the Secure Rural Schools Act. The bill’s intent is to reconnect county receipts to increased federal timber sale revenues. The passage of the “Secure Act” continues the taxpayer-funded subsidy payments to timber counties — entitlement payments made since the 1990s when communities lost federal timber sale receipts.

“The challenge is that it is a rider on the transportation bill, sometimes they take those riders out,” Begich said.

Begich spoke to fishermen on Sunday before heading to Anchorage and Fort Yukon, and then spent Memorial Day in Fairbanks.

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