Sen. Mark Begich stressed the importance of investing in Alaska's infrastructure during a speech on Tuesday as a way to navigate uncertain economic conditions and boost small business development across the state, nation and in places like the Kenai Peninsula.
Begich, D-Alaska, spoke to a near-capacity crowd at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center as part of a joint Kenai and Soldotna Chambers of Commerce luncheon. He talked about his involvement in securing federal funds for infrastructure, the importance of supporting the middle class and small businesses and leading the charge -- along with the rest of Alaska's congressional delegation -- on developing Arctic resources.
When the former Anchorage mayor began visited the Kenai Peninsula about three years ago, he said he saw the area was experiencing tough times.
"The economy of the nation was collapsing rapidly and it was a bad sign of what could come," he said.
However, Begich said increases in federal funding for infrastructure development -- a total of $4 billion in additional funding over the last four years -- have been a boon to the area and state.
"In times when people were saying that infrastructure investment from the federal government would start decreasing ... the fact is that it has done fairly well," he said.
Begich cited funding for highways, aviation and broadband development as critical federal pieces. His goal is for 100 percent connectivity in regard to broadband development, he said.
"Broadband is our ability to connect, our education system, our health care system, our commerce between each other -- if you don't have high speed broadband you are going to be out of the loop," he said.
Alaska small business development, Begich said, is important not just to local economies, but also to the nation's economy.
"My heart is with the small business community because that is where the economy grows -- 50-plus percent of the ... job growth in Alaska is from small business," he said.
Alaska is just about "eight hours from everywhere in the world," he said.
"We can move goods, we can do a lot of commerce, but we have to have the tools," he said. "We have to have the opportunity to make sure that small businesses can move forward."
Begich also mentioned his work on payroll tax reductions this year, which he said benefited more than 20,000 small businesses across the state.
"Along with reducing that payroll tax, it benefited almost 400,000 Alaskans who are working, $300 million in their pockets so they could spend," he said.
The Senator also discussed exploring the Arctic, calling it the "most amazing opportunity for Alaska."
"Imagine this -- in Antarctica 46,000 people went to go see the Antarctic last year and that's a little hard to get to," he said with a laugh. "Imagine when people start discovering the Arctic."
Begich said research, fisheries, mineral exploration and oil development were among the possibilities for the area.
He guessed that oil estimates of 26 billion barrels of oil in the region would prove out to more than 40 billion barrels. That would become a "bonanza" for industry, he said, leading to serious increases, perhaps double, in the amount of oil flowing through the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.
"As you know, what's produced up there comes down here into this region," he said. "Tesoro needs the oil, the jobs are related directly and indirectly."
However, Begich said he and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, want to make sure Alaska gets its "fair share of that revenue stream." He said he Murkowski had introduced legislation to address the issue.
"It just depends on how we grab (the Arctic), what we do with it and how we manage it because it is not a question of if it is going to happen -- it's happening," Begich said. "The question is how are we going to manage it for the benefit of our state, our country and the globe."
Begich also mentioned renewable energies and the need for continued innovation in them to create new opportunities.
"We are great in natural resource development, but we are also ... great in renewable energy -- 25 percent of our energy production in this state is from renewable energy, and (will be) 50 percent by 2025," he said.
Begich took a number of questions from the audience on topics such as local hiring during Arctic and North Slope oil development, concerns about the nation's health care system and the possibility of Alaska applying for a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind act, an action he supported.
The Senator encouraged residents to get involved in the process and use social media to connect with their legislators. He assured the audience he and other lawmakers are working to turn around Washington, which he called a "very dysfunctional place."
"We have to find ways to bring non-partisan ideas to the table and figure out how to move issues forward, oil and gas is one of them, tourism is another," he said. "But we have a lot of good news even though lots of times you read about all the bad news happening in Washington."
Brian Smith can be reached at email@example.com.