Posted Wednesday, June 20, 2018 - 10:33 am
One of my earliest trips as a Federal Communications Commission commissioner was to a health care clinic in Fort Yukon, Alaska, population 554. The clinic may not have all the amenities of a big-city hospital, but it does have a broadband connection.
High-speed internet access has made a big difference for this clinic. It’s meant access to doctors far away who can review medical information beamed to them by a local nurse.
Fort Yukon’s story isn’t unique. Today, communications technology has fundamentally transformed the delivery of health care in rural America. Telemedicine can help address the workforce shortages that are too common in rural health facilities.
Rural patients can use interactive videoconferencing to consult with specialists anywhere in the country — expert care that was unavailable and unimaginable not long ago. Chronic disease management has been revolutionized as wearable sensors can detect real-time complications and alert a family member or first responder to intervene.
Digital tools can empower people with diabetes to monitor their blood-glucose levels. Bottom line: digital medicine helps rural communities increase access to health care, reduce costs, and improving patient outcomes.
No state stands to benefit more from telemedicine than Alaska, which is home to many of the most remote communities in America. In a filing with the FCC, the Alaska Native Health Consortium estimated that 20 percent of Alaska Natives rely on telehealth, and that remote consultations within their network save $10 million annually in avoided travel costs. They put it simply: “(W)e cannot provide care in rural Alaska without telecommunications.”
But there’s a fundamental challenge in Alaska, as in many parts of the Lower 48: promoting enough broadband to support digital health services. Nearly one-quarter of Alaskans can’t access fixed broadband service to support high-bandwidth applications like telemedicine. In rural areas, that number is dramatically higher.
Established in 1997, the FCC’s Rural Health Care Program is an essential tool for closing these gaps in internet access. This program helps health care providers afford the connectivity that they need to better serve patients. But it’s facing some real problems.
Most significantly, the program is currently underfunded. Its budget hasn’t increased a dime beyond its initial allocation of $400 million a year in the late 1990s. A second problem is that under today’s rules, if the program is oversubscribed (that is, if more than $400 million in reimbursements is requested from the program), every recipient sees a funding reduction.
In 2016, program recipients saw a 7.5 percent trim in support. For funding year 2017, we’re looking at a chop of up to 26 percent.
We need to update the FCC’s Rural Health Care Program to better reflect the needs of and advances in digital health care. That’s why I recently introduced a plan to increase the program’s annual funding cap from $400 million to $571 million.
This new spending level reflects where the cap would be today if it had been adjusted for inflation all these years. This 43 percent increase would apply to the 2017 funding year in order to give rural health care providers immediate relief.
Going forward, the plan would also give providers more certainty by adjusting the cap annually for inflation and allowing unused funds from prior years to be carried forward to future years.
Notably, support for this approach is bipartisan. This May, Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan joined a coalition of 30 U.S. Senators from Alaska to Alabama and New Hampshire to New Mexico in calling on the FCC to increase the Rural Health Care Program’s spending cap. And the Trump Administration has broadly recognized the value of telemedicine, especially for veterans.
And this proposal is just a start. We also need to make sure that every dollar spent in the program is spent wisely to benefit health care providers in Alaska and their patients. That’s why the FCC is moving forward on a separate track to make sure that the program functions more efficiently.
This proposal is also personal. I grew up in rural Kansas, the child of rural doctors. I can remember my father waking up early to make long drives to small towns in order to treat patients who otherwise would never see a specialist. For me, this issue isn’t about technology; it’s about people and their ability to access to basic care they need to lead healthy lives.
As long as I am FCC chairman, one of this agency’s top priorities will be harnessing the power of communications technology to improve health care in rural America. Devoting the resources necessary to make the FCC’s Rural Health Care Program a 21st-century tool will go a long way toward achieving this result.
Ajit Pai is the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.
Posted Wednesday, June 13, 2018 - 3:37 am
The major buildup of the U.S. missile defenses at Fort Greely continues, but the possibility their capability will be tested against an attack from North Korea is less now than it was a week ago thanks to President Donald Trump.
Trump’s June 12 summit with Kim Jong Un, though the redundant cast list of media, Democrats and NeverTrumpers predictably tried their best to discredit it, was an unquestionable success of diplomacy the aforementioned Peanut Gallery claimed he’d be incapable of pulling off.
This same clownshoe-clad posse that carried water for President Barack Obama’s deal with Iran bound in cheesecloth and sealed with pallets of cash, his normalization of relations with the Castro brothers and his post-election “flexibility” offer to Vladimir Putin is now attempting to argue with a straight face that Trump was swindled in Singapore.
Giving up nothing more than a photo op and a pause in military exercises with South Korea, the securing of an agreement to finally repatriate the remains of thousands of U.S. casualties in the Korean War represents an achievement no president has managed in 65 years despite several other “deals” with the so-called hermit kingdom.
That’s in addition to the freedom for three American hostages held by the Kim regime achieved without billions of dollars, sanction relief or the release of Taliban leaders that Obama exchanged.
If nothing else comes of this summit, the return of American soldiers to their families is a historic feat on its own.
But there will never be any concession of a Trump victory by his increasingly unhinged opponents, who would probably give up the climate change cause if the president suddenly embraced it.
Trump famously bragged that people would “get tired of winning” if he were elected, yet there’s no sign of fatigue so far either for his supporters or members of the #resistance that apparently still believe screaming “F*** Trump” on live TV will win regular Americans to their cause.
The stock market is up; unemployment is down to record lows across every demographic group including African Americans; wages are rising; and job openings topped the number of people looking for work for the first time ever in April.
Obama once snickered that there’s no “waving a magic wand” to create jobs. He and others scoffed at Trump predicting 3 percent GDP growth. The measly 1.5 percent average growth over Obama’s eight years — the worst of any president since World War II despite near-zero interest rates and trillions in stimulus aided by endless “quantitative easing,” aka printing money, by the Federal Reserve — was dubbed the new normal.
The Atlanta Federal Reserve is projecting GDP growth could top 4 percent for the second quarter.
Meanwhile, the national media continues to drop once proudly-held standards of ethics and best practices in the name of taking Trump down as the intelligence community across the alphabet is concurrently exposed for its malfeasance and treachery under Obama’s watch in the false belief that Hillary Clinton would win and its abuses would never come to light.
Resorting to porn stars and disgraced figures like James Clapper, John Brennan and James Comey has done nothing but backfire upon them all as Trump has let this farce play out with Robert Mueller indicting Russian trolls and nonexistent companies with his dream team of Democrat-donating lawyers and exiled lovebird agents Peter Strzok and Lisa Page.
The same media that forced the revelation of Trump attorney Michael Cohen’s clients after Mueller’s lackeys in New York raided his office now howl with indignation when one of their cohort had her phone and email metadata seized after it was discovered she was sleeping with her source that was illegally leaking classified information from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Schadenfreude doesn’t even begin to capture the karmic tail-kicking being administered to Trump’s ankle-nipping pursuers.
House Misery Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-lusional, has called the tax relief “crumbs”, defended the “spark of divinity” in MS-13 gang members and poo-pooed the jobs numbers with a sarcastic “hip hip hooray.” Democrats are running on tax hikes, open borders and impeachment with billionaire Tom Steyer proving that there is actually a bigger waste of money for rich guys than donating it to Jeb Bush.
Good luck with that.
The RNC is flush; the DNC is broke. Half the Democrats in the Senate are up for reelection but their adherence to Chuck Schumer’s obstruction strategy will likely have them in Washington during August voting against Trump’s nominees while 10 GOP challengers in states won by Trump get the field to themselves.
Wile E. Coyote hatched better plans.
And somewhere, Jim Acosta is crying in the shower.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Wednesday, May 30, 2018 - 10:24 am
The May 16 vote in the U.S. Senate to reverse the Federal Communications Commission repeal of “net neutrality” rules produced a split from Alaska’s delegation with Sen. Lisa Murkowski joining 49 Democrats and Sen. Dan Sullivan voting with his Republican colleagues.
The Democrats’ rare victory in the Senate was a small one, however, as there is not support in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives or from President Donald Trump, who appointed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, to restore the 2015 net neutrality rules.
Democrats want to make a campaign issue out of net neutrality with tech-savvy millennials by portraying it as a battle of David vs. Goliath with giant internet service providers in one corner and would-be innovators supposedly in danger of being throttled or blocked in the other.
In fact, net neutrality boils down to a battle of Goliath vs. Goliath with the ISPs facing off against the dominant content providers known as FANG: Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google.
According to Canadian bandwidth management systems vendor Sandvine, those four companies combine to take up some 56 percent percent of all internet traffic during peak periods, with Netflix taking the lion’s share of that number at about 36 percent. Next up is YouTube, owned by Google, at about 15 percent.
Netflix had become such a bandwidth hog by 2014 that ISPs such as Comcast and Verizon started slowing down its streaming video; that forced Netflix to sign deals with them to pay a toll so its customers could enjoy faster speeds.
Those deals were voided under the 2015 net neutrality rules that required all traffic to be treated the same regardless of whether it was a blogger or a corporate behemoth like Netflix with 125 million customers.
That was a huge win for content providers who were able to go back to free-riding on the infrastructure built by the ISPs while continuing to charge customers for the services they provide over that same infrastructure.
In practice, so far as the content providers are concerned, net neutrality is akin to “highway neutrality” if all road traffic was treated the same regardless of weight, length, value, etc. Of course we all understand that not all road traffic causes the same impact and therefore users pay different fees, tolls, taxes and the like.
Google doesn’t pay anything for using about one-sixth of the available bandwidth during peak hours, but it definitely charges for YouTube TV and for ad placements on that content flowing through the ISPs.
Netflix is using more than a third of the available broadband and likewise pays nothing for the privilege while raking in billions per month in subscriber revenue.
If anything leads to “throttling” of internet speeds it would be two companies who are using almost half of the available bandwidth.
The fears of ISPs throttling or blocking content are overblown to be sure, but speaking of net “neutrality,” does anyone believe companies like Google, Facebook or Twitter are “neutral”?
Google manipulates search results. Facebook and Twitter have gotten into the speech censorship business by blocking users and the practice of “shadowbanning.”
The corporate leadership and culture of these companies are overwhelmingly, outwardly, proudly, left-wing in nature.
They are by far the dominant platforms for search and social interactions and there is no shortage of incidences of them using their clout for ideological purposes.
In 2012, President Barack Obama’s reelection team was praised for its ability to microtarget voters by scraping data from millions of Facebook profiles, and the company did nothing about it. In 2016, that became a scandal when Cambridge Analytica did the same thing on behalf of then-candidate Trump.
YouTube has “demonetized” conservative users; Facebook curtailed the page for the popular duo of African-American Trump fans Diamond and Silk; Twitter similarly polices progressive speech far more loosely than it does that of the right.
So-called “net neutrality” does nothing to address the lack of neutrality when it comes to political speech exhibited by the Silicon Valley titans who claim to be for a free and open internet with them as champions of open public platforms. They have revealed themselves to be anything but.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Wednesday, May 30, 2018 - 10:24 am
We are writing to assure you and all Alaskans that we are committed to the principles of net neutrality.
We do not block websites.
We do not censor content.
We do not throttle, discriminate, or degrade network performance based on content.
These core tenets of Net Neutrality define our networks and the internet access we offer Alaskans.
The internet has become essential to most Alaskans. And it’s done so, for the most part, with very few—but often changing—rules. Regulators under four different presidents have taken four different approaches. Courts have overturned regulatory decisions. Regulators have reversed their predecessors. This continual back and forth is especially difficult for Alaska’s providers, many of which are small businesses and cooperatives, who find themselves whipsawed by this parade of regulatory regimes.
They struggle to assess and meet ever-changing regulations, while continuing to build and operate critical networks in some of the most challenging environments on Earth.
Attempting to ensure net neutrality through the Congressional Review Act will not appropriately address the uncertainties surrounding net neutrality, it will compound them. Solidifying the FCC’s 2015 order does not guarantee privacy and risks imposing tremendous regulatory burden on Alaska’s broadband providers, which would divert critical resources from broadband service across rural Alaska to regulatory compliance.
We join Alaska’s congressional delegation in calling for legislative action by Congress. Only legislation can ensure consumers’ rights are protected and provide consistent rules of the road for all internet companies across all websites, content, devices and applications. It is time for Congress to end the debate once and for all, by writing new laws that govern the internet and protect consumers.
Until Congress acts, be assured of the commitment of all Alaska Telecom Association members to provide an open internet to Alaskans.
Christine O’Connor is the executive director of the Alaska Telecom Association. Dave Goggins is the president of ATA. Alaska Telecom Association members include Adak Telephone Utility, Alaska Communications, Alaska Power &Telephone Company, Arctic Slope Telephone Association Cooperative, Bristol Bay Telephone Cooperative, Bush-Tell, Copper Valley Telephone Cooperative, Cordova Telephone Cooperative, GCI Liberty, KPU Telecommunications, Matanuska Telephone Association, Nushagak Cooperative, OTZ Telephone Cooperative, Summit Telephone Company, TelAlaska and United Utilities.
Posted Tuesday, May 22, 2018 - 9:42 am
I love salmon, but I care deeply about Alaska too. That’s why I oppose the salmon initiative.
I doubt that there is anyone in Alaska that wants to protect salmon more than me. Transporting salmon, by aircraft, barges and trucks is a major part of our business, and sport fishing is my favorite pastime.
Fishing has been and will continue to be a mainstay of Alaska’s economy and way of life for most Alaskans.
The proponents of the so-called “Stand for Salmon” ballot measure want you to believe their proposal is just about protecting salmon, and that it won’t hinder development. If that were truly the case, I would support the measure, but unfortunately, once again, outside groups are trying to stop development, kill jobs and destroy Alaska.
The “Stand for Salmon” initiative would make it extremely expensive and difficult for any type of development or community project. Whether it’s building a mine, repairing or building roads, developing an oilfield on the North Slope, or building a home, this initiative would be a major permitting impediment.
We need to protect our unique and cherished ecosystems, especially in areas like Bristol Bay which rely so heavily on commercial and sport fishing industries. Many Alaskans were led to believe this would stop the Pebble Mine, but the initiative goes way beyond stopping one project in Alaska. Instead, it negatively impacts all resource development.
This is a broad effort to attack Alaska statewide, and that’s why I decided to join the effort to defeat the initiative before it destroyed our state.
The fish habitat ballot measure would cripple many industries by adding layers of unnecessary rules and regulations that would serve only to slow down or stop development and community projects, large and small. Building roads or runways in rural Alaska is already an expensive undertaking. Piling burdensome regulations onto those projects makes them harder to fund, if they are funded at all.
Fortunately, once Alaskans find out the true meaning and purpose of this ballot measure, they are speaking out against it. Our Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth said the measure “would have the effect of categorically blocking certain mines, dams, roads and pipelines.”
The Laborers and Teamsters unions oppose the measure because it would cause statewide job loss. Aaron Schutt, the president of Doyon, Ltd., one of the Alaska Native corporations, said “there will not be another significant project built in rural Alaska if this initiative passes.”
Once again, Alaska needs to rally against an ill-conceived ballot measure that will be a huge roadblock to our state’s economy. Stand for Alaska is the name of an impressive coalition of businesses, native organizations, and individual Alaskans who love salmon but care about Alaska too.
Lynden is a proud member of this group and we will help push back on the false narrative that Alaskans must choose between development and habitat protection. We can have both and have for many years. For more information about our coalition and the ballot measure, visit standforak.com.
If the Alaska Supreme Court allows this ballot measure on the General Election ballot this November, I’m firmly voting no, and I encourage my fellow Alaskans to do the same.
Jim Jansen is the chairman of Lynden and a supporter of Stand for Alaska.
Posted Monday, May 14, 2018 - 11:25 am
A recent House Resources committee hearing on the Ambler Mining District Industrial Access Project served as a reminder how prevalent a role outside environmental groups play in Alaska politics, particularly when it comes to mining projects.
Perhaps nowhere else in America do environmental groups spend as much time, money and effort to insert a voice into how — or even if — we manage our own resources.
Knee-jerk opposition to resource development often ignores the needs and best interests of Alaskans. It also discounts that these projects, in this case a potential road leading to a mining district in Northwest Alaska, make huge regional economic contributions to fund education, healthcare, and opportunity for future generations of our state.
The Red Dog Mine, one of the largest lead and zinc mines in the world, has been in operation since the 1980s. It’s the only non-government tax contributor to the Northwest Arctic Borough and plays a critical role in supporting important services, especially schools.
Since mining began at Red Dog over 25 years ago, more than $140 million has been provided to the borough. During that same period, over $880 million has been provided to the state and over $695 million to the federal government.
Seven hundred-fifty Northwest Arctic Borough jobs are connected to Red Dog; accounting for roughly $75 million in annual wages. In addition, over $160 million is spent annually on goods and services from Alaska-based businesses. The economic and social benefits that the Red Dog Mine has brought to the region go on and on.
Roughly 150 miles to the east of Red Dog is the mineral rich Ambler Mining District. The topic of recent legislative hearings was the feasibility of an access road being pursued by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, or AIDEA.
The road project is important because it would allow responsible development of mineral resources used in everything from solar panels to windmills and electric cars.
The Ambler Access Project road alone would create hundreds of local jobs during the construction phase. Once built, providing industrial-only access to known mineral deposits, mining development could account for thousands of direct jobs during mine construction and operations. The benefit to the region would be a multiple of the long-term positive benefits the Red Dog Mine has brought.
Despite the significant employment and economic benefit potential the project represents, the House Resources hearing included testimony from naysayers, arguing about the economics of the advanced-stage exploration project and challenging the return on investment of a proposed private toll road paid for with other people’s money.
The Wilderness Society representatives, while generally stating support for the access road itself, had a lengthy presentation disagreeing with the economic model presented by AIDEA.
AIDEA still has a lot of work to do, and they have detailed the rigorous process necessary to finalize a financing package for private investors interested in purchasing bonds to build the access road. Similarly, Trilogy Metals just finished a pre-feasibility-level study that demonstrates robust project economics, and as the Wilderness Society testified, more drilling work is needed at the potential mining projects.
That work will continue this summer with recent news that the mining companies pursuing these opportunities have the funds in hand to do that.
AIDEA and its proposed Ambler Access Project are going through the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, process to complete scoping requirements for an environmental impact statement, or EIS.
This includes comments from the public relative to concerns and issues that must be addressed in the permitting process. This is followed by a draft EIS; another public comment period; a final EIS; a third public comment period; and then ultimately a record of decision. Nothing can be built before then.
The NEPA process is incredibly rigorous, incorporating local input into project design and decision making, and has always resulted in a better project. At the end of the day, Alaskans should support this process to ensure that — once all the facts are made available — those who stand to be most affected by the road have a say in how it’s designed and developed.
Nobody is building a road or a mine at this point, and none of the numbers are final, but Alaskans, especially residents of the region, deserve this process to play out. They deserve to hear all ideas, concerns and options for the road moving forward.
What they don’t deserve is to have another resource project shut down by outside special interest groups before all the facts are available and the permitting process complete.
John MacKinnon is the Executive Director of AGC of Alaska, a construction trade association representing over 640 companies in Alaska.
Jim St. George is the President of AGC of Alaska. He is founder of STG Incorporated, an Anchorage-based construction management and services company specializing in heavy industrial construction projects in rural Alaska.
Posted Wednesday, May 09, 2018 - 9:31 am
Chronicling political hypocrisy is typically no more difficult than shooting the idiomatic fish in a barrel.
And sometimes the fish jump in front of the bullets.
Such is the case with the 11th-hour hijacking of a bill to update Alaska’s alcoholic beverage regulations known as Title 4.
In the works for six years to develop points of consensus among stakeholders, Senate Bill 76 was sent to the House in a unanimous vote on April 30.
Less than a week later, a former bar owner, Rep. Louise Stutes of Kodiak, and a current bar owner, Rep. Adam Wool of Fairbanks, were aided in passing an amendment aimed at cutting a leg out from under popular craft tasting rooms by the reliably anti-business Rep. Andy Josephson of Anchorage and the reliably unremarkable Rep. Gary Knopp of Kenai.
A parade of bar owners testified on May 2 to the House Labor and Finance Committee with their complaints about the success of craft beer and spirit tasting rooms.
Despite having very limited hours to serve no more than 36 ounces of beer or 3 ounces of spirits to a single customer, and prohibited from offering any entertainment such as televisions, live music or even a pool table, these craft tasting rooms have apparently unlocked the secret to success: offering a product people want in an atmosphere they enjoy.
To hear the bar owners tell it, though, these crafty craft room owners are simply succeeding because they have the unfair advantage of not paying upward of $250,000 for a beverage dispensary license.
These sneaky entrepreneurs have apparently discovered a loophole in the system whereby they can pay $3,000 for a brewery license to sell those three beers per day per customer after investing a half-million dollars or more in tanks, equipment, ingredients, payroll, construction and transportation costs.
Were it not for the real world implications of such a transparent effort to pinch the profitability of another part of the industry he inhabits, Wool’s naked self-dealing would be laugh-out-loud comedy.
Wool, as you may recall, was the lead sponsor of the bill that green lit the operation of ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft in Alaska during the 2017 half of this legislative session.
At the time, and to this day, the one-time occupiers of a government-created and once-protected monopoly in the taxi business screamed to the high heavens to no avail that Uber and Lyft would enjoy unfair competitive advantages of less regulation while offering the same service and without the burden of purchasing the expensive and limited number of permits.
The arguments by the taxi lobby aren’t much different than those being raised by the bar industry, but in an ultimate irony they held more water then than they do now.
Unlike the craft tasting rooms versus bars, Uber and Lyft occupy the exact same space in the transportation industry as taxis do without the same cost of entry to the business.
That didn’t mean much to Wool, who cited long waits for taxis as a reason for his support for the bill. No doubt his bottom line has benefitted over the past year since as a customer or two at his bar may have been more willing to have that last cocktail with the knowledge a ride home was just a click and a few minutes away.
But now that his fellow industry travelers have an opening to stick it to competitors rather than pondering what may make a tasting room a more popular option for some customers and adjusting their business accordingly, Wool and Stutes are doing their bidding by attempting to slash crafters’ potential revenue by a third with no corresponding benefit to bar owners.
Wool actually called the one-third reduction a “compromise,” which begs the question: a compromise from what?
If customers are expressing a clear preference for local brews and spirits, perhaps the solution for bar owners would be to serve more of those options rather than further limiting the amounts available just feet from the tanks in a hamhanded attempt to force them into their businesses.
What the bar owners are arguing would be like souvenir shops in Homer complaining that Salty Dawg is cutting into their hoodie sales, or Fred Meyer whining that farmers’ markets hurt its produce department.
Hopefully House Finance will strip this amendment out of the bill, or it will get killed on the floor, but even if the bill is held until next session that would be a preferable alternative than to reward the worst of legislative tactics being plied by Stutes and Wool.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Monday, May 07, 2018 - 10:51 am
The Alaska Chamber has long been an outspoken voice for pro-business policies that grow our economy and create economic opportunities for Alaskans. For several years, especially during the recent economic slump, we’ve advocated for a state fiscal plan that limits government spending and supports private sector growth.
Our annual public opinion survey found that 60 percent of Alaskans rate the state’s economy as poor. It’s a shocking number, and an indicator of how pessimistic Alaskans are about their ability to work and make a living here.
Alaska already has the unwanted distinction of having the highest unemployment rate in the country. Getting our economy and our state back on track requires some hard decisions and a vision for the future, but, in the short term, we have some serious obstacles right before us.
Alarms now are sounding on an issue that few Alaskans are aware of. The Stand for Salmon ballot measure, a misguided attempt to improve salmon habitat protections, is slated to be on the November general election ballot. Alaskans will get to decide on this issue that chamber members believe to be among the most serious threats to our state economy in years.
It only takes one read of the eight-page document to convince most Alaskans that this ballot measure is both un-Alaskan and unsound. Legal experts have analyzed the ballot measure’s language and are shocked by its breadth, complexity, vague undefined terms and its unstated presumptions.
Alaska is already home to a world-class permitting system that allows responsible development and successful fish habitat management to co-exist. This ballot measure is a radical overhaul of a system that works, and it provides no additional benefit to the environment.
But that isn’t surprising since neither Alaska businesses nor leaders were consulted in the drafting of the measure.
Outside money and outside influence led to the creation of this measure and the result is a dumpster fire. It is unwieldy, unpredictable, and dangerous. The fish habitat measure ensures that our economy will continue to shrink, joblessness will grow, and our state will continue to see an out migration of people.
Outside environmental groups and their wealthy outside benefactors are not the people who should be weighing in on policies in Alaska. These are people with a longstanding agenda, and they don’t care if they sabotage economic growth and jobs in their misguided mission to enforce extreme fish habitat regulations to the exclusion of everything else.
These activists, whose single largest donor is a Boston billionaire, don’t live here, so why would they care if our current economic recession deepens? They would rather turn Alaska into one giant, inaccessible national park.
When the leader of an Alaska Native corporation warns the public, “there will not be another significant project built in rural Alaska if this ballot measure passes,” that’s a serious matter.
When the construction industry says that building or improving roads, bridges, and runways will become exorbitantly expensive or impossible if this measure passes, that should provoke a sustained outcry.
When the president of the proposed Alaska LNG project says that passage of this ballot measure would make the gas line project “darn near impossible” to build, that should convince us to take action now.
And, when all four leading candidates running for governor, including our current governor, are unified in stating their opposition to this measure, that must motivate us to band together to ensure its defeat in November. Alaskan voters need to get up to speed on this issue. Once they do, I believe they will firmly reject it.
You can learn more about this misguided ballot measure at standforak.com.
Curtis W. Thayer is lifelong Alaskan and serves as president and CEO of the Alaska Chamber
Posted Wednesday, May 02, 2018 - 10:23 am
Those responsible for recruiting teachers to Alaska have a funny way of going about it.
In this issue we quote Gateway School District Superintendent Scott MacManus, who says Alaska is “not competitive” for pay and that its 401k system for teachers is “not seen favorably.”
Given that public position you have to wonder what exactly is MacManus’ pitch to prospective teachers at job fairs if he thinks conditions are so horrible for teachers in Alaska.
Alaska teachers on average make $67,433 per year according to 2016 data compiled by the National Education Association, which is about $10,000 more than the average wage for all occupations in the state and nearly $9,000 more than the national average for teachers.
While teacher advocates complain about the state cost of living, they fail to note there are no state income, sales or property taxes.
There is also a complaint that teachers aren’t eligible for Social Security. That stems from a decision that goes back to the 1950s when Alaska elected to create a pension system for public employees rather than opt in to the Social Security system. (Correction: Teachers in Alaska were covered in the territory under the Teacher Retirement System. After the Social Security Act was amended in 1950 to allow public employees to enroll, the territory expanded retirement benefits to all of its non-TRS employees by signing a Federal Social Security Agreement. This benefit for governmental employees was later offered by the territorial legislature to employees of political subdivisions across the State, excluding members of TRS, and the agreements continued after statehood in 1959. In 1978, the public employees opted to end their participation in Social Security with the agreement the state would develop an alternative plan. Source: State of Alaska Division of Retirment and Benefits)
While it’s true teachers aren’t eligible for Social Security, they are also not subject to paying 6.2 percent of their income in the payroll tax, which increases their take home income by more than $4,100 per year for the average salary.
The more than 3,000 teachers in the Anchorage School District, by far the largest in the state, pay nothing toward their health insurance premiums that are nearly $1,600 per month.
With an 8 percent 401k match from the state, that adds up to an additional $5,400 benefit for the average salary each year. Financial planners advise saving 10 percent to 15 percent of income per year toward retirement; Alaska teachers are able to put away 16 percent of their income annually.
In sum, teachers in Alaska earn more than the average worker, they pay less in taxes and health insurance premiums then the average worker, and they have a more generous 401k match than virtually any other worker.
(Without knowing the details of every private company 401k program it’s impossible to say nobody else receives an 8 percent match, but it is safe to say those who do are exceedingly few in number.)
But to hear MacManus and NEA Alaska President Tim Parker tell it, every state has a better pension system than Alaska because it is the only one that uses a 401k program instead of a defined benefit system.
Teachers have been striking in states across the country, and a May 1 Associated Press article headline noted the reason: “High pension costs lurk behind US teacher push for more pay.”
School districts around the nation including Alaska have racked up a half-trillion — yes, $500 billion — in pension liabilities.
That means teachers’ wages are being frozen to pay down debts for current retirees and having their own future benefits cut.
“I think what you see happening in the state and local and municipal sector is it has now become very, very clear how expensive defined benefit plans are. I think we’re headed for a big crisis across the country,” said Olivia Mitchell, executive director of the Pension Research Council at the University of Pennsylvania, according to the AP story.
“Pensions are now becoming the tail that wags the government dog, if you will.”
Three nonpartisan think tanks that have examined the issue — which don’t have a stake in Alaska teacher income — all grade the state 401k system as far better for new teachers than the pensions that are bankrupting other states.
Alaska was one of only nine states that didn’t get an “F” from Bellweather Education Partners; the Urban Policy Institute gave Alaska a “B” for new teacher hires; and the National Center for Teacher Quality gave Alaska the only “A” grade in the country for creating a portable, 401k-style plan for new teachers in which they get to keep 100 percent of their retirement savings compared to the national average of 28 percent.
According to NEA data, only two states and the District of Columbia spend more per student than Alaska and no state spends more as a percentage of total income than Alaska.
That raises the question there doesn’t seem to be an answer to from those arguing for more pay and a generous defined benefit pension system: how much is enough?
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Monday, April 23, 2018 - 1:29 pm
Despite the disturbing circumstances that led to the recent arrest of the company’s former CEO, I am incredibly proud to be working for Quintillion and with its team. I have been in the telecommunications business for 35 years and have yet to see a team as dedicated to its mission as the one I lead today.
The small team of women and men of Quintillion, together with our investors and partners, have remained focused on the job and our clients. As a result, we have built and now operate a world-class fiber optic network that is transforming communities, businesses, and lives in Alaska’s Arctic.
I want to acknowledge that what is alleged to have occurred is appalling, and not representative of the way Quintillion or its people do business.
Equally important to note is that Quintillion’s board of directors were the ones who discovered the wrongful activity, conducted a detailed and extensive internal investigation, voluntarily reported these findings to the U.S. Department of Justice, and were the first to notify Quintillion’s customers and lenders.
Quintillion itself, along with its investors and lenders, were the victims of the charged conduct. We will continue to fully cooperate with the U.S. Department of Justice as they prosecute this matter.
While all this transpired, we nevertheless still had an important job to do. Our management team focused on completing construction and providing commercial service to all of our clients and end users across our complete network.
I am tremendously proud that our team responded aggressively to this challenge and diligently executed the plan to construct and operate a remarkable system, in a place where nothing like this had ever been done.
Along with a new 500-mile terrestrial fiber system from Fairbanks to Deadhorse, Quintillion’s team built a 1,200-mile subsea fiber system, the first-ever submarine cable system in the North American Arctic, which, in fact, did go live on time on December 1, 2017, and has performed flawlessly for our customers ever since.
That network has the ability to serve some 20,000 residents and businesses in the Alaska Native communities of Utqiaġvik, Point Hope, Wainwright, Kotzebue, and Nome — communities that have epitomized the term “digital divide.”
The majority of these communities have been without reliable, affordable, high-speed broadband, or any kind of meaningful modern cell service. The Quintillion network is now providing access to high speed broadband capacity for telecommunication service providers at a significantly lower cost per megabit, providing dramatically improved quality of service over existing satellite and microwave options. Quintillion’s infrastructure is enabling isolated communities to connect to the outside world in a manner that is historic.
From telemedicine to virtual classrooms and on-line training programs, these communities are starting to leverage our system to the benefit of their patients, students and consumers.
One school has had its internet bill cut by two-thirds. Downloads are faster. Businesses are able to order supplies faster. One community has a public center offering free wi-fi and video conferencing. Entrepreneurs are selling their wares on-line. What is happening is truly transformative, and given we have only been in service for four months, this is only the beginning.
Quintillion is seeing success in all of our markets, and we and our investors are confident that we will continue to deliver unique value to those who we serve, and we view our mission as greater than any individual parts.
At Quintillion, our focus is on the future we can achieve for the benefit of many. Our management team and investors are fully engaged and committed, and we will remain steadfast and in pursuit of these goals until the job is completed.
George Tronsrue III is the interim CEO of Quintillion Inc.
Posted Wednesday, April 11, 2018 - 12:36 pm
Public education matters because a student’s opportunity to achieve matters. The Legislature has an opportunity to end years of continuing cuts to teachers, guidance and career counsellors, teacher training, end even courses.
We’ve lost over 500 teachers, counsellors and education support staff in recent years. Bigger class sizes, demoralized teachers, and rolled back curriculum don’t increase academic achievement.
Education should be more than crowd control. Adjusted for inflation, classroom funding for our public schools has fallen by $90 million since the 2014 legislative session. As a state we can do better than give students less than they need to reach their goals and dreams.
We can plead austerity as a state, and the inability to come together to fix our deficit has been frustrating to me. But it is wrong to tell a parent of a 7-year-old that they can come back to second grade later, when the adults who represent them get their act together. We can do better than tell a student in Cordova that basic chemistry classes can’t be offered every year.
That’s why I and Rep. Harriet Drummond have filed House Bill 339, to reverse the trend of disappearing school support. The bill has growing support in the Legislature, over a dozen co-sponsors, and would provide a needed, modest boost of $100 per student in school funding.
That basically keeps schools even with the rate of inflation. As costs of supplies and health insurance and medical costs go up with inflation, flat or reduced school funding causes damage to our ability to deliver the education children and youth deserve.
We can start to reverse these cuts now, or we can pay later. We’ll pay for more unemployment, lower graduation rates, fewer students who graduate ready for college or vocational education, and a weaker workforce. We’ll pay with more people on Medicaid, housing assistance and other expensive public benefits.
I’d rather pay now to educate students, so they can stand proudly on their own, and so they can reach their dreams.
Here are a few examples of what’s happening to public schools around the state.
On the Kenai Peninsula many schools don’t have “frills” like music classes. A quality education includes courses and activities that excite and inspire students. In some Bristol Bay schools, grades are now being combined into single classrooms to save money.
In the Lake Iliamna region, school has been cut by 20 days to avoid laying off teachers.
In Kodiak the district lost 18 education positions last year, and they are on pace to lose 16 more next year with flat funding that again and again falls behind inflation. In Nome schools have lost 13 positions since 2015.
Class sizes are going up from already excessive levels, from Juneau to Anchorage to Fairbanks. If a school doesn’t cut teachers, they cut courses, counselors, school days and teacher training.
Right now, many students in rural Alaska take online courses that involve no teacher interaction. Taking courses with bland written materials students can read on a computer, without a teacher available for questions, is reading and not effective student learning. We can do better.
I also think we should fund education “early”, so schools don’t have to warn teachers they might be laid off because of budget uncertainty. Our bipartisan House Majority coalition passed an early funding bill months ago, and our Republican colleagues on the Senate side seem willing to do the same. But early funding that doesn’t keep up with inflation will lead to another year of more layoffs and staff and curriculum cuts.
I get the Legislature hasn’t fixed four years of the worst budget deficits in state history — and won’t use this column to point fingers at my colleagues on either side of the aisle.
Soundbites, and big philosophical differences about whether oil companies and the wealthiest Alaskans are chipping in a fair share to help close the deficit aside, the biggest cause of our massive recent deficits has been a massive drop in oil prices.
In a state very dependent on revenue from the oil we own in common, a drop from $120 per barrel oil (prices that brought in strong revenue), to prices of less than half that, cut more than half the revenue the state uses for basic services like schools, public safety, child protection, help for seniors, and safe roads.
Deficits of $2.3 billion, or $2.7 billion if we ever adopt a needed construction project budget again to put people to work and maintain our roads, schools, energy projects and infrastructure, are too big for most to comprehend. And that’s after Republicans, Democrats and Independents have already cut $3.5 billion, or 40%, from the budget since 2013.
It’s clear budget cuts alone aren’t enough to solve the deficit. And as we cut into our schools, our classrooms, our university and our ability to prepare students for success, we are just leaving a legacy of lost opportunity.
I’ll keep trying to find compromise to solve the deficit, even though some say that can’t happen in an election year. But the answer to adult problems isn’t to create problems for children and youth who deserve a chance in this world.
Rep. Les Gara is a Democratic legislator from Anchorage and is vice chair of the House Finance Committee.
Posted Wednesday, April 11, 2018 - 12:36 pm
The main criticism surrounding the commercialization of the North Slope gas reserves is that the state would never find investors. Many also believed that if the project was not economical under the private sector, it was not economic at all. Neither belief is true.
The Alaska Gasline Development Corporation (AGDC) is on the cusp of signing deals with investors who will pour hundreds of millions of dollars into our state. That is an immediate path forward for the Alaska LNG pipeline. We don’t have to wait and wish for another mega-project anymore – we already have it.
In preparation for advancing the project, AGDC recently asked the Legislature for authority to receive outside funding. This request is not an attempt to exclude the Legislature from the process. Rather, it is but another step towards the AKLNG pipeline and the 20,000 new Alaskan jobs, a steady flow of low-cost energy, and increased revenue for schools, roads, and troopers that come with it. The Legislature will still be the appropriating body, and they will still need to approve any additional state spending or issuance of debts or bonds.
Critics, inside the Legislature and out, have recently asserted that we Alaskans are incapable of managing anything of significance on our own.
On that point, we both take exception.
I’m Rep. Gary Knopp, a Republican from Kenai. I came to Alaska thirty-odd years ago as a young man without connections or wealth. The same things folks are saying about Alaskans working on the gasline now, they could have said about me back then. I was young and unqualified, with thin financial resources - the biggest thing I had going for me was my will to succeed. Since that time, I worked with other Alaskans to build a construction company that has completed hundreds of jobs on time and on budget across the Kenai Peninsula. Don’t tell me that Alaska can’t handle big projects.
And I’m Rep. David Guttenberg, a Democrat from Fairbanks. I moved to Alaska in 1969 after growing up in New York. Working on the pipeline gave me a foundation of financial security for the rest of my life, and showed me what Alaskans were capable of. We had a sense of wonder at the scale of the project and felt like there was nothing we couldn’t do. The life lessons from these early years led me on a path beyond anything I could have imagined. Alaska is the “Great Land” where anything is possible.
For decades, Alaskan leaders who came before us, like Ted Stevens and Dan Fauske, made sure that Alaska and AGDC would be ready when an opportunity to commercialize Alaska’s gas emerged. That opportunity is now.
Since when did Alaskan leaders decide it was politically important to undercut our team and second-guess our own accomplishments? Since when did we doubt our own ability to think for ourselves and determine our own path forward?
We are our own worst enemies if we resort to taking potshots in an attempt to sink the project that holds the key to our economic security. Some of this is being done for personal political gain, which is particularly unsettling.
Let’s instead look to the leadership of our Republican colleague from Nikiski, Rep. Mike Chenault, who hit the nail on the head when he recently spoke out against cutting AGDC’s funding, saying “If we continue to be afraid to make that investment to get to a point where we see if we have a viable project or not, in 30 years we’ll be saying the same thing we’re saying today, is that: ‘We should have went forward and completed a project.”
Questions about this project from lawmakers and everyone else are welcome. Every aspect should be thoroughly examined and the Legislature must play a critical role in vetting decisions that will impact Alaska’s financial future. That is exactly what is happening.
On this effort, we must work together and act as leaders, not politicians. The Alaska LNG Project is far too important to our state to undermine for partisan gain.
Posted Wednesday, March 28, 2018 - 11:07 am
Future economic development in Alaska relies on outside customers; Alaska’s resources are so vast that their market is worldwide.
We should celebrate being an international exporter and be concerned when local voices speak negatively about our business partners around the world. Discouraging outside investment will not build a stronger Alaska, but prevent our resources getting to world markets and to Alaskans. Disparaging our customers shrinks our economy at a time when we desperately need growth.
Here’s an important headline: Alaska exported $4.93 billion of goods in 2017, with over $1.32 billion going to China. China has been Alaska’s largest export partner for the last seven years. They benefit from the abundance of our fisheries, mining, oil and gas, and timber. Gov. Bill Walker’s trade mission to China presents an opportunity to further engage with this economic powerhouse.
The federal administration has made it clear that our country benefits from selling more goods to China, especially the energy Alaska has in abundance. For natural resources, China is an import nation and Alaska is an export State. In fact, the U.S. trade deficit with China was a key component of President Trump selecting the Alaska Gasline Development Corp. to participate in the U.S. trade mission to China last fall.
There, President Trump witnessed the signing of the Joint Development Agreement between Alaska, AGDC, and China Petrochemical (Sinopec), CIC Capital Corp., and Bank of China in a historic step to advance the Alaska LNG project. These three Chinese companies do business all over the world and recognize that Alaska has a bright future as a reliable export partner.
This kind of economic cooperation and trade is not new. China is the biggest customer of Alaska seafood, buying over $796 million of our products last year — more than any other country and an increase of 27 percent from 2016.
Relationships between Alaskans and their customers in China are growing as this business grows, and for decades Alaska has fostered these same relationships with markets in Korea, Japan, and other countries.
And yet, China or other Asian customers does not manage our fisheries. They do not count our salmon to ensure proper escapement, nor do they schedule when our families can dipnet on the Kenai or sink a lure in Auke Bay. The State of Alaska manages our fisheries for the benefit of Alaskans, and Alaska will never cede control our fisheries to foreign markets.
We also profit from selling other resources to China, including over $355.8 million worth of metal ores and millions of dollars of forest products in 2017. China’s purchase of these resources adds significantly to a healthy and diversifying state-wide economy across Alaska, without ceding control or management of these resources either.
For exports of Alaska’s beauty, representatives from Alaska’s tourism industry have been working for years to draw more Chinese visitors. After Chinese President Xi’s visit with Walker last April, both Fairbanks and Anchorage reported an immediate increase. Tour operators are fielding more inquiries from Chinese tourists, and the State of Alaska is working on setting up direct flights from Alaska to China to further stimulate this influx of economic activity for our communities.
To be clear, these comments are not about the federal administration’s recent trade announcements. Our focus is on Alaska and Alaskan opportunities. Regardless of what happens at the federal level, the opportunities for Alaska and Asia to partner together are clear, providing we take our shot with the can-do optimism our state is built on.
As Alaskan economic development entities, we envision a future where we see more and more headlines telling a positive Alaska-China story. China’s longstanding consumption of Alaska products has been creating benefits across the state for years, and the upcoming trade mission to China is a clear opportunity for us to strengthen this bond and continue to grow our economy.
Finally, while the Alaska-China relationship did not start with the Alaska LNG project, it is a huge step forward we need to carefully encourage.
Doug Griffin is the executive director of the Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference. Tim Dillon is the executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District.
Posted Wednesday, March 28, 2018 - 11:07 am
Other than projecting relentless optimism about the prospects for the Alaska LNG Project, the second constant from its leadership and proponents has been criticism of the press coverage it receives.
Over and over we’ve heard Alaska Gasline Development Corp. President Keith Meyer rip the news coverage of the project as overly negative and damaging in foreign markets.
In this issue we share an opinion piece by two advocates for the Alaska LNG Project who are now channeling Meyer’s press critiques, this time on the topic of the state’s trade relationship with China.
“We should celebrate being an international exporter and be concerned when local voices speak negatively about our business partners around the world,” write the authors Doug Griffin and Tim Dillon of the Southeast Alaska Municipal Conference and the Kenai Economic Development District, respectively. “… As Alaskan economic development entities, we envision a future where we see more and more headlines telling a positive Alaska-China story.”
Touting Gov. Bill Walker’s upcoming trade mission to China, the authors note the country’s status as the state’s biggest export destination with $1.32 billion in products last year, just more than 60 percent of that in seafood.
Meyer spent a lot of time in China over the past year-plus working on a deal that culminated in the signing of an agreement last November outlining a framework that could have the country investing in up to 75 percent of the project costs in exchange for 75 percent of the LNG it will produce.
On the surface, anything that helps turn the dream of unlocking the vast North Slope gas resource into a reality is a positive step. China does need cleaner energy as it has begun literally choking on its own pollution and has more than enough financial resources to invest.
Beyond that, there is every reason to air concerns about the terms China will attempt to extract in exchange for its majority-share investment and what the Walker administration would cede to China in the name of building the project he’s pursued for some 30 years.
And let’s get real: China is not Japan or Korea, Alaska’s No. 2 and 3 trading partners who are also geopolitical allies.
The list is virtually endless when it comes to China’s human rights violations, its cyberattacks on and intellectual property theft from U.S. companies, its currency manipulation, its evading of sanctions on North Korea, its military aggression and expansion in the South China Sea, and so on.
Griffin and Dillon don’t even acknowledge China’s bad behavior on these numerous fronts, and appear to want the press, legislators and business stakeholders to ignore these issues entirely in the name of increasing Alaska trade regardless of who it is with.
They also don’t mention that the vast majority of those seafood exports are reprocessed in China and sold elsewhere through value-adding that we should aim to happen in Alaska and not celebrate as a penultimate trade achievement.
China is ruthlessly aggressive in pursuing its economic, political and military interests and it does not make deals that go against them. A healthy concern or even skepticism is hardly unwarranted when it comes to making a $40 billion-deal with the Communist leaders of the world’s largest economy.
The Walker administration is also asking for unlimited receipt authority for AGDC to accept third-party funds as its stash of previous state appropriations dwindles and its leaders have made the political decision to not seek more money from a cash-strapped state treasury.
Preserving legislative oversight of the deals AGDC is making and what pieces of state resources it contemplates trading in order to advance the project are entirely appropriate and vital to upholding the constitutional mandate to develop resources for the maximum benefit of Alaskans.
Just four years ago Walker was accusing former Gov. Sean Parnell of playing election-year politics for his moves to advance the Alaska LNG Project as an equity consortium with the three major North Slope producers and TransCanada.
Now as Walker pursues reelection his surrogates are asking critics of his plan to be quiet about the path he’s pursuing and with whom he is pursuing it.
The Alaska LNG Project will not — and should not — rise or fall based on the press coverage it receives or the amount of skepticism voiced in the Legislature or business community about its economics or the prospect of dealing with China.
Working the press and leaning on skeptics to keep quiet in the name of more “positive headlines” isn’t going to get the Alaska LNG Project built and it comes off as a sign of weakness more than strength.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Wednesday, March 21, 2018 - 11:47 am
Around the Capitol, there has been talk about “the high cost of Medicaid” and what can be done about it. Just the other day legislation was introduced in the Senate that would institute work requirements for Medicaid recipients.
Let’s be clear: kicking the economically-vulnerable off Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program might be one way to reduce healthcare costs, but it is undoubtedly not the right way. And in the end, is very likely to cost ratepayers more. There is no honor in reducing enrollment when it means the neediest among us suffer even more.
Our Medicaid system is a safety net which most of us in the legislature are lucky enough never to have needed. In a recession, like the one we are in now, it is even more important to ensure that we don’t rend that net. For some it might mean that a family is only a medical disaster away from finding themselves on the street — damaging families and potentially costing us all more through unrecoverable costs to emergency rooms.
There are real problems with our healthcare system in this state, but it isn’t Medicaid, and it isn’t CHIP. Increases to these programs are symptoms of deeper problems. Rather than covering fewer people, to reduce State Medicaid costs, we need to both fix our economy so people have good jobs, and figure out how to make healthcare more accessible and affordable.
In Alaska, 35 percent of the total state budget is devoted to health care, and that number will continue to rise. It’s driving up costs to our education system as health care premiums take a bigger and bigger bite of our budget.
Healthcare is affecting our local communities, our businesses, and nearly every aspect of our economy. At the same time, the recession has caused dramatic job loses forcing many Alaskans to turn to Medicaid for health coverage. It’s as simple as that.
Some legislators blame Medicaid rather than looking at these underlying issues. Further, they forget access to basic health care is a good thing, not a bad thing. The goal of Medicaid is to provide health insurance to low-income Americans. The benefits of this access go far beyond just preventative care, reducing the financial burden of chronic conditions, and of people using emergency rooms as their primary source of healthcare.
It gives people access to financial security, making it easier to find work and stay employed because those covered can afford to get treatment. It also means that all of us with insurance pay less because we don’t have to cover uncompensated care.
This year, Medicaid will bring about $1.4 billion of federal funds into Alaska, money that rolls through our economy creating an even greater impact as dollars get spent and re-spent (some estimate as many as seven times in the state). This “multiplier” effect shores up our private economy as well.
The Department of Health and Social Services estimates that Medicaid expansion alone will bring an additional 3,700 jobs to Alaska by 2019, meaning an estimated $1.2 billion more in Alaskan salaries and wages, and $2.49 billion in increased economic activity across the state.
So, how do we continue to provide care and save lives while reducing the cost of healthcare? Alaskans are innovators, so let’s innovate. Let’s talk about bending the cost curve of all healthcare spending, rather than denying our fellow Alaskans basic healthcare.
Already, Alaska’s reinsurance program, separating out our “high-risk pool” of patients, has reduced costs for ratepayers and is a model for the rest of the country, with the full benefits still emerging.
Another idea the state has been exploring is creating larger insurance pools to include all school districts and state employees, spreading out risk, buying in bulk, and driving down costs. This could save the state and school districts millions of dollars a year.
It is also time to examine the business model of our healthcare industry. Right now, doctors and hospitals make money when people are sick, rather than by keeping people healthy — an inherently flawed system.
In Alaska, we could move away from expensive fee-for-service payment and towards “accountable care organizations” which are paid a set price to serve a set population, regardless of whether someone seeks care or not. They have a financial incentive to keep their patients healthy and out of costly hospitals — a win-win situation for business and people. Payments are linked to improved quality of care and reduced costs.
The best way to reduce the total need for Medicaid and CHIP is to get our economy back on track with a comprehensive fiscal plan which will provide a stable and safe Alaska — showing the private sector the stability they need to invest in our future for the long term.
A key part of that functioning economy will be ensuring that we get control of our health care costs at the front end through lower prices and prevention rewards, and maintaining a security net for our citizens when times are tough.
Sen. Olson is a Democrat from Golovin and Sen. Begich is a Democrat from Anchorage.
Posted Wednesday, March 21, 2018 - 11:47 am
From the White House to the steps of the Alaska State Capitol, the need to maintain and improve our roads, buildings, and other critical infrastructure is evident.
That is why Gov. Bill Walker introduced the Alaska Economic Recovery Act, which would establish a payroll tax capped at 1.5 percent that sunsets after three years. If approved by lawmakers, this proposal will inject $1.4 billion into deferred maintenance projects, improving dozens of communities across our state and putting more than a thousand Alaskans to work.
At the federal level, we also need to recognize President Donald Trump’s efforts in proposing a framework to rebuild our nation’s crumbling infrastructure.
Under the president’s proposed Rural Infrastructure Program, Alaska would receive a portion of $50 billion. This program will generate block grants for governors to direct funding to communities with fewer than 50,000 residents. In other words, nearly the entire Last Frontier would qualify. This approach to funding enables the State to prioritize projects that matter most to rural communities and Tribes.
Many villages face significant infrastructure challenges or will soon due to impacts of climate change. Roads, schools, and homes along Alaska’s sprawling Western coast are threatened due to coastal erosion, and a swath of our state that comprises urban and rural communities is grappling with the effects of thawing permafrost.
We simply cannot wait years for federal agencies to get through a permitting process that could be put on a fast-track without negatively impacting the environment in any way. Alaskans deserve streamlined regulatory and permitting, particularly when it comes to the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, or NEPA”) process which far too often causes public works projects to grind to a halt.
Reduced bureaucracy is another key benefit of the proposed Trump infrastructure plan for Alaskans. The “one agency, one decision” process is welcomed and long overdue.
Currently, many federal agencies would play a role in the issuance of permits for infrastructure projects under the current Federal process. Alaska’s experience has shown how big of a burden this can be.
For more than four decades, federal agencies and others have attempted complete a NEPA document on a project to improve a dangerous stretch of road on the Kenai Peninsula: the Sterling Highway’s Cooper Landing Bypass. This month, the Federal Highway Administration completed the project’s environmental impact statement and allowed the project to move forward just six months after the process was restarted.
Progress on the Cooper Landing Bypass is just one example of what is possible for Alaska under President Trump’s administration, a glimpse of what federal and state agencies are capable of when properly motivated and given timelines to follow.
This is especially promising as we work with our federal partners to develop the proposed Alaska LNG Project, which will be one of the largest infrastructure projects in the history of this country. This project is too important to the future economic growth of Alaskan, and the recent announcement of an expected timeline for the Federal EIS is an encouraging sign.
The introduction of permit fast tracking and infrastructure priorities at the Federal level combined with an infusion of badly needed monies at the state level promises a brighter future for economic growth in Alaska.
Marc Luiken is the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.
Posted Wednesday, March 21, 2018 - 11:47 am
A bipartisan group of senators — Democrats, Republicans and one Independent — voted to pass the first set of substantial reforms to our nation’s financial system since 2010.
The bill that cleared the Senate was the result of multiple hearings, broad stakeholder input, and thoughtful negotiations between lawmakers of differing parties and views.
As Senate leaders work with the House to get this bill to the president’s desk for his signature, we thank Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Sen. Dan Sullivan, who supported this bill on the floor.
Why should voters in Alaska care about this unusual moment of unity? The bill is full of targeted regulatory reforms that will help Alaska’s community banks better serve customers and communities.
For example, the bill makes tangible improvements that will streamline the mortgage process and free up credit to help banks get borrowers into new homes with the right kind of mortgage. It will help small business owners get loans to expand and hire more employees. And it will help bankers devote more time to front-line customer service, rather than spending hours each day working to comply with federal regulations that were supposed to apply only to far bigger, more complex banks.
Consumers, business owners and bankers have been saying for years that there are too many regulatory impediments to growth in their communities. Sens. Murkowski and Sullivan deserve credit for listening — and responding.
Their support for this bill will help fuel economic growth and job creation in communities across the country. We join with people across the country to support this bipartisan approach to solving problems. And we support our senators and other lawmakers who chose the path of hard work and compromise.
We look forward to the House building on the solid bipartisanship that achieved this important victory in the Senate, and the President signing this into law soon. And thanks again to Sen. Murkowski and Sen. Sullivan for leading the way and showing that Washington can work together on behalf of the American people.
Joe Schierhorn is the President and CEO of Northrim Bank and President of the Alaska Bankers Association.
Posted Wednesday, March 21, 2018 - 11:47 am
Since 1953 the Alaska Chamber has been the voice of Alaska business large and small across Alaska with a mission to promote Alaska as a great place to do business. To better understand the concerns and needs of Alaskans, the Chamber conducts a robust annual statewide poll — and the 2018 numbers are in.
As much as we’d like to dedicate all of our time and attention to issues like economic diversification, small business startups, resource development, and much-needed workers’ compensation reform, state spending is still the overwhelmingly dominant issue on Alaskans’ minds.
The issues that unite us
What is abundantly clear in our findings is that without a doubt Alaska’s state budget dilemma remains the top concern on Alaskans’ minds. Along with the budget there are several notable and important issues on which Alaskans are strongly aligned.
Some issues that enjoy the support of two-thirds or more of Alaskans include:
• Implementing a cap on state spending (78%)
• A work requirement for Medicaid recipients (77%)
• Making cuts to state spending (72%)
• Exploration and production in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (68%)
• Offshore Alaska oil and gas exploration and production (67%)
These are issues that Alaskans agree on so strongly that they are overwhelmingly likely to pass should they ever go before voters on a ballot. You’d think that this type of universal alignment would mean these issues are likely to be introduced and passed in the Legislature but, unfortunately, that’s not always the case.
Perhaps with education and strong advocacy from statewide constituents, these issues might advance through the legislative process.
Each year we ask Alaskans to rate the current condition of the state economy. Public perception has basically held steady at just over 60 percent of Alaskans rating the economy as poor.
While Alaskans remain unhappy with the overall state of the state economy, public opinion appears to have hit rock bottom. Perhaps now we can start climbing back out. I hope that Alaskans see national trends and upcoming opportunities to improve state leadership as a chance to stabilize — and perhaps begin to improve — the health and direction of the Alaska economy.
The elephant remains in the room
Alaskans still believe that the road to a balanced budget must be paved with cuts to spending and services. Cutting the budget outstrips all other fiscal options, including use of the Permanent Fund earnings or new tax revenues, by an overwhelming 10 percent to 36 percent. Today, those cuts may look more like structural reforms such as workers’ compensation reform that will save Alaska and business money.
I mentioned that Alaskans are still concerned that the state is on the wrong track (66 percent). We went one step further this year, asking for recommendations on what might be done to get our state on the right track.
Cutting spending to balance the government budgets is the number one recommendation. For Alaskans, reducing spending and eliminating services are more important than increased resource development, economic diversification, new state leadership and new taxes.
For decades now the Chamber has advocated for a fiscal plan focused on Alaska’s future. Smart spending habits, responsible use of our savings, and pro-business policies that encourage the development of our natural resources to grow Alaska’s economic pie are the cornerstones of our advocacy efforts. And we now find that Alaskans agree.
Over the remaining days of the legislative session, through the interim, and throughout the upcoming election season, we will continue to find shared, common ground and meaningful trends in the 2018 polling data.
While Alaska is navigating a patch of rough road, the good news is that maybe we’re past the frost heaves. There are many issues that unite Alaskans. As individuals and as companies its time to come together to advocate for public policy that Alaskans from across the state can support.
Curtis W. Thayer is lifelong Alaskan and serves as president and CEO of the Alaska Chamber.
Posted Wednesday, March 14, 2018 - 12:09 pm
For too long, there has been an awkwardness in the way Alaskans talk about climate change and resource development in the same conversation. But there is no question on the very real impacts of climate change on Alaskans, nor in the continued need for resource development in this state.
This administration voices our commitment to not only deal with the impacts of climate change on the health and safety of our citizens and our environment, but also to provide our people a meaningful future with safe communities, quality education, a strong economy and good jobs.
To make progress, we must recognize that both resource development and climate action are key parts of Alaska’s future.
Climate change is affecting Alaskans right now. From erosion forcing entire villages to relocate to infrastructure damage from thawing permafrost, the physical and economic impacts of climate change are hitting Alaska faster and with more severity than most other areas of the world.
To underestimate the risks or rate of climate change is to gamble with our children’s futures, and that is not a bet that we are willing to make. According to a 2017 poll, the majority of Alaskans are with me on this, recognizing that the effects of climate change have already begun and require action.
On Oct. 31, 2017, the Governor signed Administrative Order 289, Alaska’s Climate Change Strategy, creating the Climate Action for Alaska Leadership Team. This team is charged with developing a range of climate solutions that help make wise use of our resources, provide for the health and welfare of Alaskans, preserve the social and cultural fabric of our communities, and meet our responsibilities to future generations.
Creating these solutions will push us to build on past successes, using the same ingenuity and teamwork that has defined Alaska’s leadership in energy production.
The question in front of us is not whether we can remain an oil and gas producing state or strengthen our commitment to addressing climate change — we must do both.
The state will continue to be an energy producer for as long as there is a market for fossil fuels, and the revenue that comes from our resources will continue to spur economic growth and support essential public services.
However, we will not ignore the fact that resource development contributes to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions. We should not use our role as an energy producer to justify inaction or complacency in our response to the complex challenge of climate change.
Instead, we must leverage our expertise and resources gained as an industrial leader, creating solutions that empower individuals, communities, and businesses.
A responsible energy transition will help us to envision and create a future for Alaska that is prosperous, just, and competitive in a global marketplace that is increasingly shifting towards renewables and energy efficient technologies.
A 2017 report estimated that jobs in the solar and wind energy sectors are growing 12 times as fast as the rest of the U.S. economy. Not only will this energy transition create jobs and investment opportunities, it will also enable communities and regions to take control of their energy systems, reducing costs and increasing local energy security. Alaska has incredible renewable energy resource potential — our economic future must reflect that.
We are confident that together we can have robust discussions, implement meaningful action, and make significant progress in our collective response to climate change.
The Governor’s Climate Action Leadership Team has a lot of work ahead, and they will depend on engagement and partnerships with companies, communities, and philanthropic organizations, to ensure that their recommendations reflect a diversity of needs and interests.
Let’s bring this important conversation about Alaska’s unique situation into our work places, our communities and our homes. Our future depends on it.
Bill Walker is a former oil and gas attorney, and the 11th governor of Alaska. Byron Mallott is the Lt. Governor of Alaska, and chair of the Climate Action for Alaska Leadership Team. For more information see climatechange.gov.
Posted Tuesday, March 06, 2018 - 5:43 pm
If you’ve ever owned horses, you probably know that cleaning the barn first thing in the morning is good for the soul. I use that time to think. Recently, before going out to take care of my four-legged friends, I started pondering the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council’s recent resolution, the response from industry, and had a good shovel session to sift through it all.
For those who may not be aware, in January the council passed a resolution stating that oil tankers and escort vessels should not be permitted to transit through Prince William Sound and into the Gulf of Alaska in weather conditions which have been determined by industry to be unsafe for training.
Some have focused on the differing viewpoints between the council and industry. In truth, we are more in alignment than not. We both want the highest level of safety within the oil spill prevention and response system for Prince William Sound. We agree that crew safety is the first priority. Alyeska Pipeline Service Company has also committed to training new crews to demonstrate tanker escorts in a variety of weather and sea conditions in the Sound.
Our resolution is a request for industry to determine their safe limits of training, clearly define them, and then evaluate the need to limit laden tanker transits through Prince William Sound and into the Gulf of Alaska to those same weather conditions.
Crews must experience the full range of operating conditions in which they are expected to perform. If not, how can we expect them to respond to a real event in adverse conditions when their lives, as well as the economic and environmental health of our communities, may be on the line?
In 2004, I was the chief engineer on board the Crowley tug, Nanuq, during an exercise near Hinchinbrook Entrance conducted through Alyeska’s Ship Escort/Response Vessel System, or SERVS. Weather conditions ranged up to 12-foot seas and 40 knots of wind.
The Nanuq had been in Valdez for four years before that exercise. By that time the crew worked efficiently as a team and had complete confidence in the captain and the vessel. At no point did I feel that we were exposed to undue risk.
That exercise, including two tugs and a fully laden oil tanker, was to demonstrate the ability of the escort tugs to arrest a disabled tanker in higher winds and rougher sea states, which we successfully accomplished. However, the other tug had a winch motor failure while recovering the towline from the tanker.
It is a heck of a lot better to discover equipment limitations during an exercise than in an actual emergency. Such lessons learned from this drill influenced Crowley escort vessel operations in rough weather, resulting in a safer escort system.
Drills and exercises in the Sound are well-planned events with many safeguards. They can and should be stopped at any time that the risk to crews or vessels becomes unacceptably high. The council recommends a tiered system of exercises, beginning in calm conditions and advancing to the level industry deems the safe limit. Classroom and simulator trainings are valuable, but they can’t take the place of real-world experience on the deck of a vessel.
I was there when Crowley brought into service then-new escort vessels in 1999. Thinking back on that time as I shoveled away in the barn, some thoughts came to the forefront about the current marine services contractor transition.
As in 2000, the escort system in Prince William Sound is going to be vastly improved with new vessels arriving soon, to begin service by July. They will have more horsepower, higher bollard pull, and the constant tension winch systems that have been advocated for by the council for years.
Alyeska and their new contractor, Edison Chouest Offshore, have put state-of-the-art equipment into these vessels, which is to be commended.
At the same time, we need to recognize that all new vessels have a period of adjustment before they become a fine-tuned piece of equipment. Any time a system goes through transition, in any industry, risk is introduced. This is especially true for a transition of this magnitude, happening in such a tight timeframe.
I have found that an efficient crew starts with competent people: well-trained, professional mariners, learning a new vessel as a team. Just as in any good relationship in life, getting to know a vessel does not happen overnight. It takes time.
The council’s resolution is by no means an effort to delay oil shipping or put crew members in harm’s way. We are simply asking for a safe path forward for Edison Chouest’s crews to learn their vessels, the expected escort tasks, and the conditions in which they have to operate, during non-emergency situations.
Alyeska’s oil spill prevention and response system is one of the best in the world. This system was created through the hard work and dedication of industry, regulators, elected officials, and citizens working together to develop solutions and promote improvements.
We all want the same thing: to prevent oil spills, and have the best response system possible should prevention measures fail. Coordination between all parties is critical to maintain a high level of oil spill prevention and response, and to make sure an accident like the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill never happens again.
I’m proud of my 22 years of service working on SERVS vessels in Prince William Sound and look forward to Edison Chouest’s crews developing that same pride in Prince William Sound in the coming years.
The council’s resolution and accompanying position paper detailing further information and history on this topic can be found at www.pwsrcac.org.
Robert Archibald represents the city of Homer on the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council board of directors and has lived in Homer since 1984. Archibald spent 48 years as a mariner, including service in the U.S. Coast Guard and 32 years as chief engineer on Crowley Marine Service vessels in various locations, before retiring in 2014.