Senator makes stop in Kenai
By PHIL HERMANEK
Now that the Army Corps of Engineers has completed its report on Kenai bluff erosion, Sen. Lisa Murkowski said her staff is looking for sources of capital funding to move the work along.
“There was funding for the studies,” Murkowski said during a press conference in Kenai on Monday. “What we’re faced with now is we don’t have the adequate funding authority language” in the water resources bill.
She said legislation to fund such erosion projects across the state has been in process for four years. The House of Representatives has passed legislation, as has the Senate, but final legislation has failed to move out of the combined conference committee.
“It has put on hold Corps projects across the state and across the country,” she said.
While she said she does not have “a lot of answers to deal with erosion,” her staff is looking into where the funding authority language can be put.
She said because Native burial areas may be next to the Kenai bluffs, one possible area for funding language could be through the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“It’s going to force us to be more creative,” Murkowski said.
Addressing a number of issues during the Presidents’ Day visit to the Kenai Peninsula, Murkowski said when she returns to Washington, she will conduct a Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on the shortage of physicians in the country, especially in rural areas.
“In Alaska the ratio of physicians to population is one of the worst in the United States,” she said. “In rural Alaska, the ratio is the worst in the nation.
“We need to recruit 980 physicians between now and 2025 to rectify the ratio. That’s about 49 more physicians per year,” she said.
She said contributing to the shortage is a large number of physicians who are retiring and “many docs who are simply closing shop because they can’t make ends meet due to the (insurance company) reimbursement rates here.”
As part of legislation she said she will introduce, Murkowski plans to seek tax credits for rural providers as well as grant funding.
The Rural Physician Relief Act of 2007 and the Physician Shortage Elimination Act address the shortages.
During the committee hearing, Murkowski said she may also ask where people can go to find a physician when they have trouble being accepted as new Medicare patients.
“It’s not good news. There are not many doctors taking new Medicare patients,” she said.
When asked about plans under way by the World Wildlife Fund in the Kamchatka region of Russia to begin marketing wild salmon, Murkowski said, “I would always maintain that our wild salmon is the best.
“We have established a niche market and we are doing a good job to maintain the quality of our product. I say, ‘Bring on the competition.’ We can hold our own,” she said.
Regarding recent talk of lowering the daily catch limit to one halibut for sportfishermen, Murkowski said she questions whether the International Pacific Halibut Commission which voted on the recommendation has exceeded its authority on a domestic issue.
A change in the halibut allocation “should come from the fishery management councils,” she said.
“A long-range solution is being pursued for 2008, but you’ve got a season this year coming upon us,” Murkowski said.
The senator also said the HELP Committee has been working with schools superintendents across the state to see how best to deal with several areas of concern under the No Child Left Behind Act, which is due for reauthorization this year.
“We’re looking at the allowance of the use of a growth model, rather than (Annual Yearly Progress) so we can measure individuals as they grow from year to year,” she said.
The committee will also look at the “highly qualified” mandates under NCLB, the issue of Native heritage languages being taught, particularly in rural villages, and what she described as “the parent piece.”
“When parents get involved, good things can happen,” Murkowski said.
One change being considered would rank a teacher as highly qualified if he or she is in fact highly qualified in one discipline science for example and then allow the same teacher to be qualified to teach other subjects.
“There has to be room for common sense,” she said, adding that highly qualified should indicate more than a person just being qualified on paper.
Murkowski said as the nation seeks to move toward energy independence with a national energy policy, it is important for Alaska to not only be viewed as “a state where we mine it, develop it and use it” in terms of fossil fuels.
“We should also be viewed as a state of boundless renewables,” she said.
“A lot of focus is on wind and solar energy, but we have a huge potential of geothermal energy,” she said.
“The reality is we are a nation of consumers, and we need also to be responsible users.
“We can be a heck of a lot smarter about our (energy) consumption,” she said.
Phil Hermanek can be reached at phillip.hermanek@ peninsulaclarion.com.
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