Two representatives of Alaska’s Congressional Delegation gave presentations Wednesday at the Greater Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce lunch.
Alex Ortiz works for Rep. Don Young in Washington, D.C., and Bob Weinstein is Sen. Mark Begich’s representative in southern Southeast Alaska.
Ortiz, who grew up in Ketchikan, is in Alaska during the August recess. He said he focuses on various issues for Rep. Young.
“For the congressman, I handle housing, education, Native affairs and agriculture,” he said. “It’s good to be back up in the state for August recess here. After Ketchikan, I’ll be heading up to Juneau, Anchorage, Bethel and then villages after that.”
Ortiz said the next few months will be interesting in Washington, D.C., in part because of the upcoming election. The farm bill is one that’s coming up soon, and he hopes they’ll be able to include provisions for Alaska.
“We’ve got to extend the farm bill programs by September 30th, which means there’s a lot of USDA rural programs that I’m focusing on right now, particularly the village safe water program and a couple others that we’ll be working on when I get back in session here,” he said.
Another upcoming issue is sequestration, which is a series of across-the-board funding cuts that may or may not happen.
“Two or three years ago, Congress passed a budget measure that had provisions in it to try and motivate Congress to pass some cuts,” he said. “Basically, it has an impending provision that will hit next year, the beginning of next year, in January. It’s difficult to say exactly the impact of it right now, but we’re talking about 8 percent budget cuts across the board for all domestic programs, with some exceptions. And everybody’s really worried about that right now, so Congress needs to pass a fix to get those cuts from automatically going into place next year, or we’re going to have some problems.”
Ortiz said many critical federal programs could be affected by the cuts.
He said he’s also working on reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind education bill.
Ortiz said lame duck sessions, such as the one soon to arrive, are interesting times.
“We have a lot of folks that will be leaving office,” he said. “So what that means it that the political pressure will be off a lot of folks when they don’t have to worry about getting re-elected. And so it’s a time when a lot of work can get done, oftentimes.”
Weinstein said his job involves working with communities and individuals who need help with federal issues. He also has some items he focuses on, such as the Tongass National Forest, the Alaska Marine Highway System and energy.
Weinstein said that his office, at the White Cliff Building, also can connect individuals directly with Begich or the senator’s staff.
“We have very good technology in our office, so instead of going to Anchorage or D.C., we can have people come to my office in Ketchikan and speak with either the senator himself, and or staff in either Anchorage, D.C., or any of our other office locations if that’s appropriate,” he said.
Weinstein said that Begich’s priorities are more jobs for Alaskans, and limiting the effect of federal taxes and the budget deficit. He said the Alaska delegation works well together on issues that are important to the state.
“And a very good recent example has to do with Arctic oil and gas development,” he said. “I think we all know after long regulatory and other delays, Shell Oil has moved a fleet to do exploration in the Chukchi and Beufort seas, and they’re there as we speak. Alaska’s clearly a new frontier if not a continuing older frontier for oil and gas and energy resources for the country.”
Weinstein listed some local issues that Begich is working on, including streamlining the federal permit process for resource development, such as potential mines on Prince of Wales Island; and continued opposition to the Roadless Rule. He said that Begich was pleased the borough is working with the state to develop a new dock at Ward Cove.
Regarding another local issue, Weinstein said the stalled Sealaska Lands Bill now is making headway.
“On the issue of Sealaska legislation, it’s our understanding that a deal is very close to being had, and that we may see some progress on that legislation in the very near future,” he said.
A bill to transfer land to Sealaska Corporation was approved by the House in June, but that version was not expected to make it through the Senate. Both bodies have been working to finalize the land transfer called for in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. However, there has been controversy over land selected by Sealaska, which runs logging operations in addition to other interests.
On the national front, Weinstein said political rhetoric is heating up as the presidential election draws closer. He mentioned several measures that passed in the Senate, but have stalled in the House, including the Violence Against Women Act and extending tax cuts.
“After the election, I think it’s fair to say there’s going to be a showdown on at least two issues,” he said. “One is the tax cut issue. The other issue is what Alex mentioned. Unless they can come to some kind of agreement, there will be automatic significant cuts across the board and it’s not just domestic, however. There’s an, I believe, a $500 billion cut to the military.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s representative, Sonia Henrick, had been scheduled to attend Wednesday’s lunch, as well. However, she was stuck in Sitka due to fog.