Alaska Sen. Mark Begich said he and his colleagues in the Senate are digging into a massive 1,300-page climate and energy bill passed by the U.S. House June 26 to understand its impacts and to put their own imprint on the bill.
"Our first priority is to find out what this bill does to Alaska," Begich said.
Two of Begich's goals, as the Senate develops its position, are to ensure that Alaska plays a continuing and even broader role in research on climate change, and that the federal government will play an important role in helping domestic industries develop energy technologies to mitigate global warming.
"This is something we haven't done very well," he said. "When the government passed down a mandate that energy efficient light bulbs be in use by a certain time, there was no support for our industries to provide these, which simply means we'll be importing most of our new light bulbs from China."
Begich spoke to the Journal's editorial board June 29, discussing a range of federal bills and how they might affect Alaska.
Begich was home for the Senate's July 4 recess. After a hectic first few months in office, he has brought a substantial win for the state in getting funds restored for missile defense development and testing.
The new Obama administration had sought to freeze funding for the program, under which interceptor missiles are based at Fort Greely and launch facilities near Kodiak are engaged in testing of the interceptors.
Begich, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he was able to persuade skeptics on the panel, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., of the program's merits.
Earlier, the senator hosted Defense Secretary Robert Gates on a tour of the Greely launch facilities, which eventually brought Gates to reconsider his initial recommendation to President Barack Obama to freeze funding for the facility.
New appropriations approved by the committee will fund work on new silos in Fort Greely. The ultimate goal is to have 44 interceptors in place.
Begich also said he is pushing for a robust testing program for the system that would include live firing of the missiles from Fort Greely and a continued major role in tests by the Kodiak Launch Facility, which is operated by the state.
Currently, missile defense tests are carried out with interceptors launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California with simulated enemy missiles launched from Kodiak.
"Tests of the system have been successful, with an interception rate of 90 percent," Begich said. "That's not bad, but it's not perfect," and so the testing program should continue.
McCain and other skeptics were convinced once they were presented with new information about missile defense they hadn't known before, Begich said. Elected last November, the new senator said he is using skills learned while serving on the Anchorage Assembly and then as mayor; he digs deep, gathering extensive information on subjects so he is personally prepared to press his issues.
Another skill, that of understanding others' concerns and then addressing them, also came out of Begich's years in forging consensus on issues in the Anchorage municipality, he said.
On the climate change bill, Begich said Alaska is affected like no other U.S. state, but that Alaska is well a suited center for research.
Two areas where little is known are the effects of warming permafrost in speeding the release of greenhouse gases and the implications of increasing acidity in oceans due to warming water temperatures.
"We have arguably the world's best-managed fisheries, but there is little information on how increasing acidity will affect them," Begich said.
The senator is part of an industrial and energy state caucus that has formed within the Senate Democratic majority, a position he will use to push Alaska's issues.
"The coal industry is very well established and focused in working with their delegations, most in the Midwest and East, but the natural gas people in the Southwest and West are not as well organized," Begich said.
Alaska is a natural gas and a coal state, but Begich thinks Alaska's gas resource, delivered through a pipeline, could play a major role in reducing U.S. greenhouse emissions.
On another contentious issue, the Alaska Native 8(a) corporations, Begich said he and Republican counterpart Sen. Lisa Murkowski have been invited to participate in the session in the Senate Subcommittee on Contract Oversight, lead by Sen. Claire McCaskill.
Alaska Native corporations have been successful garnering multi-million dollar contracts under the Small Business Administration's 8(a) disadvantaged business certification. They hold a special exemption allowing no monetary limits on contracts, a move that has drawn criticism over the years. McCaskill is the latest to investigate.
"The 8(a) corporations have done a good job in responding to questions from the committee, and Sen. McCaskill has given them more time to provide information, which was done at our request," Begich said.
To aid the committee's inquiry, Begich said the University of Alaska Anchorage's Institute of Social and Economic Research is compiling historical data on personal incomes and poverty levels in several small villages that have also become major players in 8(a) contracting to compare local economic conditions before and after corporations began federal contracting work.
Begich said he believes the 8(a) program has been successful, but there have been problems.
"The (U.S. Army) Corps of Engineers will tell you that the program has been a huge advantage for them because they can mobilize contractors quickly. This has a lot of value given the seasonal constraints we face in Alaska," Begich said.
On the other hand, the Small Business Administration is short on resources to give the program needed oversight, he said.
On health care reform, yet another issue now front and center in the senate, Begich said Alaskans shouldn't conclude that there is any consensus on a solution. There are still many ideas in the mix, but there is broad agreement that something has to be done.
What appears to be off the table is a completely government-run health care operation like those in England or Canada.
What is more likely is some kind of balanced mix that includes a stronger public role in providing health care, along with a continued role for private insurance, he said.
Something has to be done because the cost of caring for the uninsured has become a tax on all Americans who help pay for their own insurance because health care providers' unpaid bills are passed on to people who can pay, he said.
"About 10 percent of what you pay for health insurance goes to pay for the uninsured," Begich said.
The senator has a personal goal to build in some incentives for early intervention, rather than a system that allows people to become sicker, thus causing the treatment to become more expensive.
"Eighty-one percent of the people on Medicaid today have chronic health conditions, many of which could have been prevented," Begich said.
He also wants to encourage people to pursue healthier lifestyles.
"Statistics show that the average obese person seeks medical help 10 times a year. An average person who is not obese seeks help once a year," he said.
Tim Bradner can be reached at email@example.com.
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