Economic recovery must be top priority

Posted: Thursday, February 10, 2011

Just a month into the New Year, Alaskans are taking stock of well-intentioned resolutions to drop a few pounds, spend more quality time with family or even land that record whopper salmon.

Right now members of Congress are reflecting on their own resolutions -- pledges made to voters during last fall's election. Every day I work to fulfill the promises I made to Alaskans in my election two years ago, and I heard voters loud and clear last November.

That is why our first order of business must be continuing the economic recovery by putting Americans back to work, regaining the devastating losses families suffered in retirement accounts, and providing stability to those hard-hit by the recession, especially seniors and veterans.

Fortunately, we are seeing the results of policies enacted over the past two years to reverse the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The Recovery Act created or saved 3 million jobs, every American received a tax cut and the stock market has rebounded to record levels.

It's meant serious money to Alaska, providing nearly $2 billion to help complete key projects, including Kenai's library, airport apron improvements and Soldotna and Kenai water system improvements.

The threatening dark cloud over-shadowing our economic recovery is the national debt, projected to soon hit a record $14 trillion. The bipartisan national debt commission recently issued recommendations for deep spending cuts and tax increases, and the President has proposed a five-year freeze on some federal spending.

I agree that sacrifice by all is essential for our nation's long-term economic prosperity and these proposals deserve serious consideration.

A key to cutting the deficit is tax reform, which is why I'm an early sponsor of the bipartisan Tax Fairness and Simplification Act. It increases our international competitiveness, reduces taxes for small business and the middle class, and simplifies the tax code, so most taxpayers will submit just a one-page form.

While Alaska has weathered the economic storm better than most, we must continue to fight for common-sense policies, like pushing the Senate and Obama administration to develop Alaska's ample natural resources. That's why the first bills I introduced in the new Congress would advance responsible Arctic oil and natural gas development.

These three measures would provide Alaska revenue sharing from offshore development, a benefit currently only enjoyed by Gulf of Mexico states, and require comprehensive Arctic oil spill research and infrastructure so our state's enormous offshore oil and gas resources can be developed.

The current crisis in Egypt underscores the vital importance of improving our national energy security with increased domestic oil and gas production. Threatened oil shipment disruptions in the region already have caused world oil prices to skyrocket.

Another top priority bill I just re-introduced would ban genetically-engineered salmon. As Alaska has America's best-managed fisheries which create thousands of Alaskan jobs, we can't risk damage to our wild stocks and habitat with this "Frankenfish."

Right now the Senate is addressing another vital industry for Alaska -- reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration. Aviation accounts for $3.5 billion to Alaska's economy annually by employing more than 47,000 Alaskans.

I'll insist the bill continues Essential Air Service to rural communities, improves safety by advancing use of NextGen air traffic control technology pioneered in Alaska, and invests millions into sorely needed airport improvements.

Ensuring our veterans have the services they deserve continues a top priority through my work on the Senate Veterans Committee. I'm pleased that at my urging, the Veterans Affairs Department has just created a new tribal office to better serve the nation's 200,000 Alaska Native, American Indian and Hawaiian Native veterans.

To continue advocating for Alaska, I'm pleased to have secured a new committee assignment -- Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. This gives me jurisdiction over agencies and issues vital to Alaska including the Coast Guard, post offices, federal civil service, police and firefighters and federal contracting by Alaska Native corporations.

Alaskans understand these aren't issues that come and go like New Year's resolutions. They are about our communities, our economic security and our future.

Mark Begich represents Alaska in the U.S. Senate.

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