I hope you're having a fantastic time in Anchorage. Be sure to experience this great land up close, because summer in Alaska is like nowhere else on earth.
We also extend a special welcome to our neighbors from Canada.
As an Alaska state legislator in the 1990s, I always appreciated being able to work with fellow PNWER members, and we're glad you are here. It's good to see many of our Alaskan legislators in the room, and Commissioners Susan Bell of Commerce and Diane Blumer of Labor and Workforce Development.
Visitors to Alaska who aren't familiar with the Arctic sometimes have misconceptions about Alaska. I understand that more than half of you here are from Canada, so this won't be news to you, but I do want to set the record straight on one well-known Alaska myth.
You may have heard that Alaska is running out of polar bears. Not true!
Our polar bear population in Alaska, about 14 percent of the world's polar bear population, has been stable for some time, since we addressed overharvest in the 1970s.
We have more polar bears now than we had when I was a kid. Last year, after a September bowhead whale hunt near Kaktovik, villagers counted 80 bears picking through the remains of a whale carcass -- a record.
And, for those of you watching Facebook closely, last week a local radio station posted this: [show slide -- picture of a plane on the runway in Barrow with a polar bear next to it.]
And the caption states, "Barrow Flight 907 now boarding. Exit onto the tarmac and run like hell to the plane."
Growing our Economy Locally, Regionally
Our State's Administration and legislators remain focused on growing Alaska's economy, and Alaska has once again taken its rightful spot as an outpost of opportunity.
Indeed, more people are moving to Alaska than at any other time in nearly two decades.
While America saw its credit rating downgraded, Alaska saw ours upgraded to AAA.
Our state is financially solid, more job opportunities are opening in the private sector, and we continue to push state spending downward, while leaving more hard-earned cash in people's wallets.
We've been recognized as one of the best-run states in the country. But we know that our present prosperity does not guarantee our future security. For that reason, we remain vigilant and proactive about securing our future. And we know there is strength in numbers -- more opportunity can be created for those we represent when we work together.
So, together we choose a future of safety and respect. Not only because it's the right thing to do, but also because no economy can function without a foundation of public safety. In each of our respective jurisdictions, public safety is a core or essential government function.
In recent years Alaskans have united against three great evils: domestic violence, sexual assault, and trafficking. The suffering from these crimes shows up not just in individuals' personal lives, but also in our workplaces, affecting our economy. In our own state we're working to change that.
Like America's civil rights marches of the 60's, Alaskans have marched annually for four years to raise awareness and offer protection against domestic violence and sexual assault. Eighteen communities first hosted Choose Respect marches in 2010. In 2013, that number had grown to more than 150 communities holding Choose Respect rallies and marches. Alaskans have stood up in a big way to end the epidemic of domestic violence and sexual assault in our state.
When it comes to sex trafficking and labor trafficking, we are just getting started addressing those issues. Most people aren't even aware it's happening because trafficking is part of a subculture most don't see.
Employers in our states, however, become unwitting participants in human trafficking. Here's how one scheme recently played out in Alaska that involves America's J-1 visa program.
Young people overseas look at a job board in their country, one that is provided by a middleman and includes job opportunities in your state.
They obtain work and come to the states on a J-1 visa, and begin a job that is supposed to last a few months.
Soon after the young people go to work in your state, people who claim to represent the middleman show up at your employer's office. These "representatives" of the middleman tell the employer they have reports that the J-1 Visa kids are being mistreated. They demand to see the place where the young people are staying. Alternatively, they demand pictures and diagrams of where the young people are staying, and documentation for the young people. Before the employer realizes what is happening, these people have hauled off your foreign student employees and you don't know where they've gone.
Well, where they've been taken to is an apartment or house crowded with other young foreigners, mostly girls, with no documents. The traffickers begin to starve the young people at the house, and tell them they will be in trouble with the police if they don't do what they are told.
Coming from cultures where they really do fear law enforcement's arbitrary actions and when they don't have their J-1 visa documents, it's an easy lie for these kids to swallow. Through fear, manipulation, starvation and lack of sleep, the traffickers' control is established. It's another simple step into the sex slave trade.
We all can work together to fight this illicit hijacking of employees from our workplaces. We can inform employers in our states of the danger -- not so they quit the J-1 visa program, but so they don't turn over information or documentation on their employees to anyone unless the person asking for it has proper governmental identification and authority. And if they do have anyone approaching the employer or employee, your employer should contact the FBI or local law enforcement.
Higher Quality Education and Academic Achievement
Second, after safety, together we choose a future of higher education standards and academic achievement. Without a quality education, our people and businesses cannot compete well in a global economy.
We've joined other Alaskans in striving for a ninety percent graduation rate from high school.
We've set higher expectations for academic achievement by raising our high school graduation standards.
We've put in place the Alaska Performance Scholarship so our kids have an incentive to earn scholarships to university or job training programs in the state, by taking more rigorous coursework in high school than the minimum graduation requirements.
We are increasing the use of video and computer technology to electronically deliver higher quality instruction to remote areas on specific subjects. For example, we can have a high quality algebra or calculus teacher in one location teaching kids in multiple locations through video and computer technology. The teachers can interact with students in real time on screens in each school.
Third, we've chosen a future in Alaska of economic growth--Growth derived from our resources: Oil, gas and mining, more timely regulatory decisions, and more individual freedom and opportunity.
Our path to economic growth has included tax policy leading to more company investment here, including cruise ship, oil, and Cook Inlet gas. It's included leaving more hard-earned money in Alaskans' pockets, and it's included more timely, consistent regulatory decision-making by state government.
If a person or company can't get timely regulatory decisions from government entities, economic opportunity is lost. If clear, consistent rules are not applied by government regulators, economic opportunity gets stifled by political agendas.
In Alaska, the federal government is our biggest barrier to regulatory decision making. The federal government has a tough time saying yes to economic activity and job creation, especially when it comes to our natural resources.
And natural resource development is how we were supposed to pay our own way as a state without depending on federal overseers.
Washington D.C. is far away and its regulatory decisions regularly conflict with our people's desire to make a living and feed their families. I know many of you from the Northwestern states feel that way. From our perspective, the future of Alaska belongs to Alaskans--not to Washington, D.C.
Frequently, we don't feel like we have a voice with our federal administration. So we've worked hard to make more state opportunities available in oil and gas.
We hear about Washington DC's increased interest in what they call "Arctic policy." However, as the federal government works toward an Arctic policy, the interests of Alaskans take a back seat to aggressive environmental policy and complex international diplomacy.
For us, Alaska policy and Arctic policy are indistinguishable. They are one in the same.
We pursue our statewide goals and priorities in the context of the Arctic--everything we do with energy policy, health policy, education policy, fiscal policy, transportation, etc., reflects our state's Arctic policy. Our state policy direction is our Arctic policy.
We, of all people in the U.S., understand the Arctic's attributes and vulnerabilities. And we act in the interests of America's Arctic citizens. For America--Alaska is its only Arctic state.
In Canada, the territories and provinces provided very meaningful input to Canada's Northern Strategy.
Canada's four-pronged Northern Strategy includes a strategy to promote social and economic development. And, we were happy to see Canada's priorities for its Arctic Council chairmanship putting healthy communities first with the theme of "Development for the People of the North." We hope we can convince our State Department to take on equally relevant priorities for the U.S. chairmanship.
Unlike Canada's Northern Strategy document, the U.S. government's approach to Arctic policy has failed to prioritize the economic well-being of our people. Recently the Obama Administration completed its own National Strategy for the Arctic Region, but to our disappointment, the economic well-being of our people was not identified as a priority for our federal government. This might have been avoided if Alaskans had the opportunity to play a greater role in creating this Arctic Strategy.
PNWER gets it. I understand you are focused on policy implications in the Arctic via the Arctic Caucus, and Alaska is closely connected with the Yukon and Northwest Territories on these issues. We will continue working with you on mutual economic development opportunities, for the benefit of all people.
I also want to recognize our state's Arctic Policy Commission co-chairs, Senator Lesil McGuire and Representative Bob Herron, who have been working hard to get our state's new Arctic commission up and running.
With diminished sea ice in the Arctic, more transportation and commerce will occur, bringing new opportunities and challenges.
Today, an increasing number of ships are transiting over the top of Russia, the Northern Route through the Bering Straits, and down into Asia. Last year, it was 46 ships, according to news reports.
Then there's the route that is opening over the top of North America, which has significant international implications for Canada and for the U.S. Both Alaska and Canada are exposed to shipping disasters, human safety and environmental in nature.
We are working cooperatively across many fronts to mitigate these concerns even as we embrace the possibility of more maritime commerce.
We support the U.S. gaining more icebreaking capability, for example. We are working with our U.S. Coast Guard on improving Arctic communications capability. And we are working for a new Alaska port on our western coast nearer to that Bering Straits transit point. This will all provide greater emergency service capacity and open new commercial opportunities.
We have funded the Emergency Towing System, which is a series of pre-staged equipment that may be deployed in the event of a disabled vessel requiring assistance in getting to a place of refuge. These are staged up and down our coastline, and we have exercises to keep our response level sharp.
We are closely tied to Canada, Washington, and Oregon through our fisheries. Together, we have to work through difficult fisheries management and assessment issues in the US-Canada Pacific halibut and Pacific salmon treaty processes. We have a critical need and opportunity to collaborate on science and management for fishery resources.
There's no question that Alaska's subsistence users and local communities have a strong interest in shaping emerging fisheries, but Washington and Oregon also have a strong voice in shaping federal waters fishery policy off Alaska. That's because Alaska, Washington, and Oregon all have seats on the North Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council.
As the PNWER region, we will continue fostering economic opportunity together. We'll do it on a stronger foundation of public safety and education. We'll do it with infrastructure investment and through tax and regulatory policy. And we'll do it with regional cooperation. Regional strength grows from better understanding and respect among us. PNWER does a great job of accomplishing that mission.
Thank you, PNWER delegates. Thank you for your service and for building greater opportunities for the people we serve.