Peninsula state lawmakers optimistic about Begich

Posted: Friday, November 28, 2008

Regardless of party affiliation and voting preference, many Alaskans should feel at ease with Democrat Mark Begich in the U.S. Senate, predicted Alaska Senate President-elect Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, in an interview Tuesday.

Other members of the legislative contingent from the Kenai Peninsula, all Republicans, had similarly optimistic if cautious assessments of the months to come as Begich settles into the job held for four decades by Republican icon Ted Stevens.

"It's an interesting issue. In hearing what Begich has said, I think he is fairly conservative on some issues and Alaska is quite conservative. Many people will be quite comfortable with him."

Stevens, who is not related to Ted Stevens, noted Begich's support for opening the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration and his positions on gun rights as examples. Those issues, by and large, cross party lines in Alaska, he said.

Begich will face several critical issues as the junior senator from Alaska, Stevens said. As America's giant corporations get federal bailout bucks to stave off collapse, Alaska as a state and Alaskans as individuals need help, too -- help Begich will be asked to deliver if he can.

Topping the list of requests, Stevens suggested, would be extending unemployment benefits to out-of-work Alaskans and increasing other assistance to families facing other financial problems. Alaska will need help with transportation funding, too.

"There's talk about cutting or eliminating the federal match," Stevens said. "We need that desperately."

Increased Medicaid assistance is another issue.

"We are funding more of that ourselves now," Stevens said.

Alaska also needs continued federal aid with regard to infrastructure, including broadening the electric grid, supporting renewable energy projects, and increasing funding for education, he said.

Rep. Mike Chenault, who has been named Speaker of the Alaska House for the next Legislature, said he thought it a little early to tell whether Alaska would be better off with Begich in office or not.

"I think it depends on the direction (President-elect Barack) Obama tries to take the federal government," Chenault said. "They are talking about different bailouts."

Chenault noted that Obama has called for creating 2 million new jobs, in part by promoting repairs to the nation's infrastructure -- roads, bridges, schools, and the like. Obama also wants to cut government, but spending on infrastructure to put people to work and stimulate the economy will have to come first.

"If that's the scenario, that we are going to spend money putting people back to work, then I don't see Alaska getting shortchanged there," Chenault said. "The major way you do that is through capital projects. That doesn't build government, but gets things done."

He said he would expect Alaska to get a share of the infrastructure money for projects here in this state.

Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, said he expected "a fairly smooth transition." He said he anticipated Begich visiting Juneau a few times a year to address the Legislature and speak with members, just as his predecessor has, and that legislative and senatorial staffs would communicate regularly.

Rep. Kurt Olson, R-Soldotna, has known Begich casually for several years and doesn't expect any problems.

"We'll give him the same honeymoon we'd give anyone else," he said. "We'll have to see if he can deliver on his campaign promises."

Olson predicted Begich could run into difficulties delivering federal funds to Alaska for a while.

"It has taken Ted Stevens a number of years to acquire the ability to deliver the money," he said.

Olson also predicted that in the absence of Ted Stevens' clout some programs might see funding dry up due to the current economic downturn.

Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, is in California receiving medical treatment and could not be reached.

Hal Spence can be reached at hspence@ptialaska.net.



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