President Huggins, Legislators, fellow Alaskans --
Thank you for the opportunity to be back yet again- it's been twelve years. I just saw Andrew Halcro in the bleacher seats back there and it's just hard to believe that I have been representing you back in Washington, DC for 12 years, and that it has been that long since I have been with you as a member in the House calling you colleagues. So thank you for the welcome home this morning. You come in on a day like today with the blue skies and the fresh snow, and you just think- it doesn't get better than this. We are just so blessed and so fortunate to call this place home. It dawned on me as I was preparing for this speech, that there is a real tendency in these legislative speeches where things just sound like what we said last year. Like there is kind of more of the same. It's kind of like the figure skating competition in Sochi there seems to be a number of mandatory elements. So let me run quickly through them and then get to the fun part, the interactive dialogue that we have thorough the Q & A.
You know I don't start any speech with you before I talk about my family because my family is what puts the smile on my face and allows me to just settle back and be who I am. Verne and the dog are coming back to Alaska the first part of March- he is going to be focusing on his pasta company again. So those of you in Anchorage or those of you who are visiting- fresh pasta is good. But we'll be spending some good time in Anchorage. The boys are doing well. Our youngest just turned 21, he is a junior in college, but what he really does is extreme ski competition.
His older brother graduated with a degree in Finance and he just finished his first and hopefully last season on the Bering Sea as a Bering Sea crab fisherman. They had a very successful season and the best news that happened to me yesterday was- I got a call from him they are back in cell service and they are on their way home. I can kind of take a deep breath now. I have suggested to my colleagues that between a son who is an extreme skier and a son who is a crab fisherman, it can go to hell in a hand basket here in Washington but it's going to be calm compared to what my personal life has been like. So maybe that is what helps balance me. But I will tell you- I recognize I recognize as dangerous as our fishing is, certainly on the Bering Sea on the crab grounds, it is not near what it was before Ted Stevens and others who really led the effort to reform our fisheries and eliminate the crab resource and eliminate some of the danger. So I have been thinking of Ted Stevens and I say thank you for looking gout for my boy and the men and women who are on our seas.
First I want to start off by noting an absence. As I mention twelve years here, but my friend, Beth Kerttula, has always been somewhere right around here and for those of you who are seeing her, talking to her please tell her that I miss her. I thank her for her contributions to our state, she's a good lady and a good friend and I think she is missed in our process here, so to Beth!
I know a few of you have had a few health set-backs and I hope that you're doing better. Charisse, it's good to see you. Johnny, I hope you're doing better. Fred, we are all family here and know that we think about you.
So let's start the figure skating routine here. First on the menu you gotta start off talking about what we deal with in our state and that's the issue of federal overreach and the challenges it presents to our ability to develop and maintain a thriving economy. We sought statehood because Washington was frustrating our hopes and dreams and this week a lot of us are reflecting this week on the life and times of Territorial Governor Mike Stepovich, good family friend of ours. We are reminded that Washington does not give up control easily.
Mike said so himself about two decades into statehood. "The fundamentals don't change." By that, he meant that Alaska's rich potential will always be the reason we are engaged in this a struggle over its control.
I would argue that we have more federal restrictions on us now than ever before. Implementation of the Roadless Rule in the Tongass is just the latest chapter of decades of federal insult to Southeast's economy, not only choking out the last of the timber industry, but also limiting our ability to build out our renewable energy resources. It's tough to build or maintain a transmission system if you don't have access by road. We won the fight to build a bridge to CD5 in the National Petroleum Reserve, but now we are being told we cant't have a road. The Izembek fight is all about a short connection road Notice a theme here? Seems to me that we can't build any roads? How do you operate? How do you move if you can't access?
And of course we feel the restriction off our shores, too. The Interior Department sold leases in Alaska's Arctic waters but since they haven't really shown that they want development to occur. That was 6 years ago -- Shell has spent billions of dollars and we have yet to see an exploration well be fully drilled. We're counting on this same Department of Interior to fix the EIS and effectively restore confidence that drilling can move forward in the Arctic. We have a new lease sale is scheduled to be offered for the Alaska Arctic in 2016. But really, you have to ask the question here: Who is going to bid on that under the status quo? Who is going to step up to that?
With Pebble, the EPA is teed up to preemptively prohibit development of state lands too -- not even waiting for the permit applications to be filed. It doesn't make any difference whether you are opposed to Pebble or whether you support the project- the decision belongs to Alaska -- not the EPA -- and it sets a dangerous precedent for future development not only here and across the country. Faced with all this pressure, the State must be aggressive in developing the lands where it still has a modicum of control. I am encouraged by this Legislature's willingness to offer oil and gas producers a tax regime that promotes investment. We are seeing already results in our economy. I know this was a tough vote but I admire your courage. This Legislature has taken serious steps to try and boost TAPS' throughput --it's long past time that the federal government to step up and do the same.
We know that Overreach isn't necessarily limited to developing our natural resources, -- take for instance the Affordable Care Act. We now know if you like your insurance you can't necessarily keep it. Or, you can -- but it'll cost a lot more. The website launch was a failure. Affordable plans are not affordable. While more than 5,000 Alaskans have signed up for the exchange, that's just about the same number as received letters late last year saying they had lost their healthcare. We are seeing one problem rises after another like the game of whack-a-mole. And that explains why the administration keeps pushing off the effective date for the employer mandate. We saw that just again last week.
Then there is the Second Amendment. A lot of Alaskans are rightfully concerned about further restrictions on guns and gun owners following the Sandy Hook and Aurora tragedies last year. I've spent long hours with families who have suffered. But placing new burdens on law abiding gun owners is not the ans wer. I am immovable on this and last year in the Senate as well. There is common ground on mental health issues and I am certainly willing to devote my energy to a preventive approach to stopping these tragic and senseless shooting.
These are big issues. But there are also little indignities as well. They are little perhaps from a news perspective, but those to whom they impact they are big. The veterinary clinic in Soldotna told by the EPA it would have to spend $50,000 a year on emissions tests for its small cremation incinerator. Driving your veterinarian could out of business. The daycare provider who took a handful of preschoolers on a simple picnic field trip in Wrangell only to be cited with a $350 fine by the Forest Service for not having a permit to "operate" her business in the Tongass. It took an act of Congress almost, it took an act of a Senator to make sure that the citation was waived. Fortunately the chief of the Forrest Service happened to be in the state when the article was written in the Wrangell Sentinel. But again, where is the common sense? Where is the ability to work with the people who live in the Tongass? Overreach seems to be written into Washington's DNA, but we have to aggressively work through and around it.
So what do we do, then, when we're faced with effectively a dysfunctional Congress? We've heard the adjectives and the descriptions: Cold, Dark. Testy. The lowest public confidence in history. It's all true. And the top-down institutional rules changes that are being imposed unfortunately are only making it worse.
The President's has said that this is a "year of action" but what is clear through his State of the Union speech is this mantra for 2014 is "I'm tired of working with Congress. I will go it alone." Not to be outdone, we are seeing in the Senate that Harry Reid has made that strategy his own. He has decided that it's difficult to deal with the Senate minority. So his majority largely ignores the committee process, even when we're producing good bipartisan results. They've all but taken away our ability to offer amendments on the floor. We now have less ability to modify bills, and virtually no opportunity to object to controversial nominees.
Now, what we are dealing with these rule changes is effecting nominations but it may only be a matter of time before this Senate majority ends the right to filibuster legislation. Think about what that might mean for us trying to keep ANWR from permanent wilderness status. All of this really undermines the fundamental constitutional principles. The founding fathers structured the Senate to protect the rights of states with small populations like Alaska, by giving them equal representation and protecting those minority rights. Unlike the House, there in the Senate, I as a Senator from Alaska, have the same weight and ability to advance and to speak with a voice as a Senator from California or New York. These changes are not good for Alaska, they're not good for the Senate and they are not good for the country.
I was asked just this weekend when I was up in Anchorage, I was asked by a constituent and they said "Man, it is so crazy in Washington D.C.- how can you possibly deal with all the nonsense and frustration of DC and keep calm at all?" The answer is that I know who I work for -- and it's every legislator in this room and our constituents in every single corner of this state. And it keeps you grounded when you know who it is you serve.
My focus remains on getting things done for Alaska. Sometimes doing that means wearing many hats: Advocate, mediator, ambassador and quite frankly educator. At times the educator role is the most important.
Why education? Well, we know that folks from Outside can tune into about a dozen reality shows each week and now everybody thinks they're an expert on Alaska because they have learned something about our 49th state. So it puzzled me that FEMA workers came to Alaska last summer believing that you can truck building supplies from the Home Depot in Anchorage all the way up to Galena. I don't doubt their hearts are in the right place. But the fact of the matter is that we lost a good season of disaster recovery because they simply didn't understand the geography of our state.
We are all Ambassadors for our state and we certainly feel that as we talk about the U.S. as an Arctic. Global interest in the Arctic is booming but the U.S. seems to be just waking up to our region's potential. The administration is starting to pay attention and say the right words, but words have to be backed with action. We have an Arctic Implementation Plan that was released several weeks ago by the administration, but a plan without the action, a plan without the funds, the resources behind it, its not going to cut it. We will be taking the helm of the Arctic Council in 15 months and that means that this is more than event planning, this is more than just putting on a conference -- it means carefully and intelligently advancing a vision into the future. Fortunately, where the White House may be falling short, I believe that the Alaska Legislature is leading on this -- You're working on an infrastructure plan for the Arctic. I know Leisil and Bob you're taking point on that and it is so important that the state be stepping up because the state and the nation needs concrete steps going forward. So the President will be releasing his budget on, I believe the 4th of March so we'll see whether the administration is ready to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to Arctic priorities.
Mediator. We all engage in the mediator role. I had my mediator hat full on last October when I helped lead a group of Senators to end the government shutdown. Ending brinksmanship responsible for a government shutdown is important to each of us. Alaska is home to about 16,000 federal employees. One of them is a gentleman named Mike Griesbaum of Anchorage.
Mike works full time as a civilian technician for the Air National Guard. He ensures that the 176th Wing's search and rescue squadrons are mission-ready. Part time he's a Lieutenant Colonel flying the HC-130. It's important work.
But none of that mattered when the furloughs and government shutdown kicked in. Since he was a full time federal civilian, General Katkus had to lay him off. He had to furlough the search and rescue guy. They also furloughed National Guard Technicians supporting the air refueling wing at Eielson. The intended or perhaps the unintended consequences of brinksmanship didn't just revolve in our military- it stretched from air to sea. Just ask the Bering Sea Crabbers who couldn't get their allocation paperwork processed to get their gear on the water on time when the season began. The shutdown had a ripple effect hitting millions until cooler heads prevailed to lift this nation out of the uncertainty and put us on a stronger, more certain path. So I was pleased to be part of that effort.
So let"s talk about some of the very positive developments that we've seen in the state since the last time I visited with you in February of last year. We all remember how in 2012 the Air Force announced it was pulling the F-16s out of Eielson. Tough time for all of us- not just the folks in the Interior but all around. After a 20 month fight that talk came to an end last October. Working together, this was really one of those unified efforts, Team Alaska persuaded the Air Force to abandon its wrongheaded proposal. We know that it would it have undercut our security posture in the Pacific, and it would have been devastating for the Interior economy.
But it was truly, truly a team effort. In the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee I had won an amendment that freeze the move until the Air Force could consider fully our arguments. Up in the Interior, Mayor Hopkins and the other Interior Mayors launched a Tiger Team. When Rep. Isackson was mayor, he fully engaged in this. But they really worked to drive home the message to senior Air Force leadership. The Alaska Legislature led by the Interior delegation and the Joint Armed Services Committee, it was truly an effort that gained note and notice. It affected the outcome and you are all champions in that effort so thanks for what you ave done there.
I'm watching the clock because I know you are too. There's just a few more quick things and then we'll wrap it up. But it is important to recognize where we have made headway because sometimes it feels like we are always up against a brick wall. So, it's okay to take a moment and reflect where we have done some good constructive
We have been pushing with the administration, and not just this administration, but really in order to keep the promise made to Native Alaskans when it comes to fully funding Native health care efforts, and this is not just Native Alaskans, but our Natives nationwide. I was able to work within the Interior Appropriations Committee to get the feds to live by the law and fulfill their trust responsibilities financially. This is going to result in better health outcomes for Alaska Natives, but also hundreds of jobs around the state for our medical professionals so this was an important initiative.
We were also able to build a bipartisan "Coastal Coalition' for over 40 members of Congress, and now we're going to be seeing some of that fisheries disaster money headed Alaska to help our communities that were impacted by the 2012 Chinook runs.
Charisse, I know this will bring a smile to you, we have long worked on the issue of legacy wells or travesty wells, and Alaska's going to have the funds for an aggressive clean-up as I was able to set aside $50 million in a helium bill to help address this environmental crime. We couldn't get the administration to put it in so as we found other opportunities this has got to be a priority for us, it's got to be a priority for the government. I am pleased we were able to address this a little more readily.
But we've got more challenges. We've got challenges but they are opportunities as well. Bringing the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to Eielson is going to be a great fight for us. I am feeling pretty optimistic about it. A new unmanned aerial vehicle mission for the Interior also. The opportunity for expanding our missile defense radars and the Fort Greely operation to meet new threats. So a lot going on up in the Interior. And I know everyone was concerned with the news that Flint Hills will no longer be refining crude oil as of June 1st and what this could means whether to the Pentagon's decision process about bringing the F-35s to Eielson. I know the community is still coming to terms with what the potential fallout could be, hopefully we can advert that fallout but not only concerns about investments in the Interior, but the to the railroad, the jet fuel supply for Fairbanks and Anchorage airports -- or the jobs lost, the housing markets. We are all working together. I am working this as well and want to help where solutions can be offered on the federal side.
And then, of course, the ongoing challenge that continues to put human lives at risk: This is the Interior's Secretary Sally Jewell's decision to deny the King Cove road. This denial in my view was heartless, it was absolutely wrong.
We passed legislation back in 2009, it was a historic omnibus bill. It authorized the Interior Department to transfer land in the Izembek Refuge- it was a 300-1 transfer. It was a pretty good deal -- more than a pretty good deal- but it would allow for a 10-mile gravel, one-lane non-commercial use road. That's it. A 300-1 exchange. And all they wanted was 206 acres total. And in that, what would have been impacted was so small, for a 10 mile connector road.
The day before Christmas Eve, Secretary Jewell called my cellphone, I was in the Fred Meyer parking lot going in to buy scotch tape and wrapping paper, and she called me to say that she was rejecting this road. I cannot tell you how furious, how angry and how saddened I was. And that was just before Christmas. To add further insult, no one from Interior has lifted a finger to help the people of King Cove since then.
The King Cove decision is more than a road- and I think we all recognize it is more than a road. It is emblematic as to how the federal government believes that it has to somehow protect Alaska from Alaskans. That we can't be counted on to be good stewards of the land. That we have fought for and we have worked for and we have raised our children up to honor and respect but we can't somehow be trusted with that.
There is far more at stake here than just a road. I am also reminded that every time the Coast Guard needs to brave the elements to attempt a medevac in King Cove, it's not just the patient's life at risk. It is the lives of the helicopter crew. It happened just this weekend on Valentine's Day. Once again an individual in distress needed to be evacuated, couldn't get the medevac to King Cove they get as far as Cold Bay- they had to call the Coast Guard in. And the winds were blowing 60 with gusts to 70-75. You couldn't see your hand in front of your face. And they put their lives at risk to air lift that 65 year old woman out of King Cove. And the good news is, it's a good news story. She is in the hospital, she's breathing on her own, and that helicopter crew is back with their family.
But there is a safe and an easy way to help these people. And the only thing that is standing in the way is our own federal government that says somehow we need to make sure that every bird is protected before the lives of Alaskans. That's wrong, that is absolutely wrong.
I've been told to get over it -- I have been told to just get past this issue. Let me tell you -- that is not going to happen. In addition to my role as a mediator, I can also be a hell-raiser. I am going to be a hell-raiser, I am going to channel my inner Ted Stevens and we're going to get this road. It's too important to us as Alaskans.
Ernest Gruening said it best when he noted "many things have been done for us; even more things have been done to us, but very little have we been permitted to do by us." This is the quintessential challenge for Alaska today as it was in territorial days.
What Mike Stepovich started in Alaska and we've built in the past half century is pretty darn special, drawing attention worldwide. We realize: the world gets to experience Alaska in small doses. An hour of reality TV. A week on a cruise. A month in a motorhome. People are fascinated by the glimpses of Alaska that they see. But we're the lucky ones. We get to live here all year around.
And we are the ones who are best positioned to make this state a sustained and sustainable success story. By unlocking all of our state's possibilities responsibly for our children and the generations to come ... and raising the standard of living in every corner of this state that we love.
That's my charge. And that's our challenge. It's also why I wake up every morning ready to fight for, be an ambassador for, and raise a little hell for Alaska. Good to be back home with you.