I marked my first year as a senator on January 6. With an international recession, two wars and a growing national debt, the past year has been one of the busiest in congressional history.
My focus has been on delivering what I promised in three specific areas: jobs and keeping Alaska's economy healthy; ensuring that our military and national security providers have all they need to keep us safe; and protecting Alaskans' freedoms and interests.
About this time last year, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression was taking its toll on Americans: millions of jobs lost, bankruptcies up, housing starts down. Alaskans were sheltered from the worst of it but were not immune, suffering the highest level of joblessness in a decade.
That's why I supported the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which is creating and protecting about 8,000 Alaska jobs and delivering some $1.5 billion in benefits to our state.
Its benefits are three-fold: building and improving roads, public safety, energy projects and health facilities; education and job training so Alaskans can better compete in the global marketplace; and tax cuts so working Alaskans can keep more money in their pockets.
I've used every opportunity in my meetings with President Obama and his top officials to push for Alaska development. That's paying dividends already.
After 20 years of dispute, the Environmental Protection Agency gave the green light for Juneau's Kensington Mine to move ahead. After 30 years, we secured $120 million for the University of Alaska research vessel Sikuliaq, to be based in Seward.
The Interior Department approved Shell's exploration plans for oil and gas development off Alaska's northern coast. And the EPA just granted Shell its draft air permit for that jobs-creating project.
I know some were nervous about Alaska's loss of seniority after the last election. Even though earmarking rules have been reformed, our congressional delegation secured $467 million in Fiscal 2010 for Alaska projects. And that's on top of the $1.5 billion from the stimulus bill.
I'm honored to serve as the first Alaskan on the Senate Armed Services Committee since the Vietnam War. I've used my position to fight for America's troops, including nearly 30,000 active duty Alaskans.
We secured more than $300 million to improve Alaska's military bases, from Eielson to Ft. Richardson. We won a well-deserved pay raise for our military members and restored retirement benefits for Alaska Territorial Guardsmen.
I saw first-hand what our troops are up against in Afghanistan and Pakistan and ensured the ground-based missile defense system at Fort Greely can defend our state and nation against attacks from rogue nations, such as North Korea and Iran.
When it comes to protecting Alaskan freedoms and interests, I haven't been bashful to stand up to my own political party. I am proud to be the only Democrat to co-sponsor legislation allowing carrying concealed firearms across state lines and, over the objections of the Obama administration, protected the right to carry guns in national parks.
From fair pay for women to health care for children, I worked to ensure that Alaska's unique needs are addressed. I improved and supported a health reform bill that isn't perfect but addresses unacceptable skyrocketing insurance premiums that are crippling family budgets.
As the Senate reconvenes this month, my highest priorities are keeping Americans safe, kicking our economic recovery into high gear, ensuring our children have essential skills they need to compete and eliminating the red ink that threatens future generations.
As a national jobs bill picks up steam, I'll remind my fellow senators that America's biggest single jobs-creating project is the Alaska natural gas pipeline.
And as we protect American citizens from terrorism threats, we must protect our cherished freedoms and privacy at all costs. Thank you for the honor of serving you.
Mark Begich represents Alaska in the U.S. Senate.
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