U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski flew into Kenai Saturday to show support for military veterans, and he brought some backup.
Murkowski was traveling with U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony Principi, who came to town to tour the new Veterans Affairs Health Clinic, as well as deliver the keynote address at the state American Legion Convention, being held all weekend in Kenai. Murkowski, a Republican, was also using the trip as a way to gain peninsula support for his upcoming race for governor against leading Democratic candidate Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer and others.
Saturday's appearances at the clinic and convention were only the last in a flurry of visits the pair made to sites across Southcentral Alaska. Earlier in the day they were in Anchorage, to visit the annual meeting of the state's Disabled American Veterans, and Wasilla, where they attended a prayer breakfast hosted by Wasilla Mayor Sarah Palin.
Murkowski has been increasing his appearances in the state recently, as the governor's race begins to intensify. The visit was his second to Kenai this month. On April 6, Murkowski was the keynote speaker at a dinner sponsored by the Kenai Peninsula Republican Women.
Their first stop in Kenai was the VA clinic, where both Murkowski and Principi took time to visit with reporters on a range of issues, following a brief tour of the facility. Both men stressed the senator's continuing commitment to helping Alaska's large veteran population, and the challenges caring for disabled veterans can pose in Alaska.
"Everything is unique in Alaska compared to the Lower 48," Principi said. He pointed out that the state has the highest per capita percentage of disabled veterans in the nation, and that Murkowski has a strong record on veterans affairs.
"He's made a great commitment to national veterans and Alaska vets," Principi said.
Principi added that he was excited to be traveling with Murkowski and particularly pleased with the new Kenai health clinic.
"It's nice to be back. This is a wonderful facility, and a nice addition to our family of clinics," Principi said.
The secretary has made "a couple" of visits to the peninsula in the past, and he said it's always nice to return to the area.
While at the clinic, Murkowski also answered questions about his stance on local issues, including the controversial Alaska Board of Fisheries. Murkowski said he is not in favor of changing the Board of Fisheries process, where one board makes fisheries decisions for the entire state. However, he also said the current system is not perfect.
"We can improve on it so it's better balanced and more fair," Murkowski said, though he called Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer's proposals to divide the board into smaller, regional boards, "unrealistic."
Murkowski also discussed the state's education situation. He said that he thinks the state needs to better address the divide between rural and urban school districts.
"We need to look at the difficulties in Alaska for small, rural areas trying to provide all opportunities (for students)," Murkowski said.
The senator said Alaska's problems aren't necessarily due to a lack of funding for education.
"Alaska spends a higher percentage (on education) than any other state," Murkowski said.
Murkowski said what he'd like to see is more opportunities for Alaska students once they finish school. He said he believes too many young people are leaving the state because of a lack of jobs available in Alaska.
"The challenge is to encourage our young people to stay in the state," he said. More and more people have to leave the state to find jobs, he said, "because we've not grown the economy."
Murkowski said the state, and the Kenai Peninsula in particular, has ample resources that can still be developed in order to continue to grow.
"The Kenai Peninsula is very fortunate," Murkowski said, adding that the peninsula can further develop natural resources without damaging the environment.
"The resources are here. We need a closer working relationship between the federal and state government and communities to develop the resources ... with the most advanced environmental oversight.
"The future is to grow the economy through resource development," Murkowski said.
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