It’s a privilege to be here with all of you at this 41st annual meeting of the Alaska Federation of Natives. Thank you to the Tanana Chiefs Conference, Doyon Limited and the City of Fairbanks.
I deeply appreciate and respect Alaska’s First People, your proud heritages and your diverse cultures so abundant in communities throughout our state.
Alaska Natives and all of Alaska suffered such a loss recently with the passing of Chief David Salmon. As the 1st Traditional Chief of the Athabascan people of the Interior, he had planned to welcome all of us to this conference.
We honor his memory. All of us here today will miss his warmth and wisdom. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends.
Although we’ve had to say goodbye to a respected leader and treasured friend, many Alaskan families were blessed this week with the return of their loved ones from military service in the Middle East. I had the privilege of welcoming home some of those National Guard soldiers just last week.
We are so proud of the many Alaskans who are serving in the military to keep us safe and our country free – their service has been an incredible personal sacrifice. Our National Guard men and women who return to rural Alaska are seen as role models for our youth.
I’ve been your governor for 10 months – let’s talk about some of the challenges we’ve faced. There are tremendous needs around the state and my administration has been working hard on solutions that will make a difference. Key areas include senior benefits, public safety, education, workforce development, healthcare and energy initiatives. One of my proudest accomplishments has been to help ensure that elder Alaskans will continue to receive needed assistance under the Senior Benefits Program.
When the regular legislative session ended without a solution for our seniors, we were faced with the real possibility that some of our elders would have been left without assistance to pay for basic necessities like food and prescription drugs.
We made emergency funds available so that nearly 11,000 seniors continued to be served. Working with the Legislature, I am pleased to have signed a bill that enacted a longer-term solution.
My administration is committed to improving rural public safety. In April, I signed the Sonya Ivanoff Act that mandates a maximum sentence for first-degree murder when committed by an on-duty peace officer.
This legislation honors Sonya Ivanoff, who was only 19 when she was killed by a Nome police officer – one who had sworn to protect citizens.
We must all work even harder with all of our communities as partners to ensure that every citizen feels safe, and is treated fairly and with respect.
We are also committed to protecting wildlife resources that are an important part of not just our heritage, but of many families that subsist on wild fish and game.
We have re-constituted the Alaska Wildlife Troopers to ensure protection for Alaska’s wildlife resources. The “brown shirts” are back – and this has added some teeth to wildlife enforcement. The separation of “brown shirts” and “blue shirts” ultimately helps public safety missions overall.
In combination with active predator control programs, we are working hard to increase game populations so that Alaskans can have the greatest opportunity to hunt and harvest to feed their families. We will manage fish and game resources for abundance.
Public safety is critical to all of us. My administration has secured federal funding for the VPSO program, as well as expanding our law enforcement recruitment and training. We are actively working to expand the number of VPSO contractors and VPSOs across the state, to include VPSOs on the road system.
We are working to standardize the caliber and training of those who are asked to protect us. By putting more “boots on the ground” as well as improving our training requirements and standards, we are doing a better job protecting our citizens in Alaska.
Improving education remains a high priority of my administration. Our districts are burdened with skyrocketing retirement and other costs that compete for funding and divert those precious dollars away from where they are really needed – inside the classroom.
I am working hard to address this issue. Last session, I called on the Legislature to pass an education funding bill early in the session so school districts can prepare their budgets accordingly. The result was a cooperative effort to make education a priority by placing $1 billion into Alaska’s Education Fund.
We are also contributing a significant amount to help local school districts and municipalities with the increasing retirement costs this year. Although our state budget for next fiscal year is still being finalized, it will reflect my continuing support to fund the TRS and PERS shortfalls, so that school districts can focus on the educational needs of students.
I recognize that the cost of educating our children varies significantly across the state. The way we allocate state education dollars needs to reflect the high costs in rural Alaska. Last session, we were able to fund a one-time fix to the school district funding formula and I will continue to pursue a longer-term solution next session.
An area that that is near and dear is developing Alaska’s workforce. We can and must do a better job of preparing Alaskans to fill skilled positions across our state.
Through our Department of Labor, we are starting now with a plan to ramp up our training in preparation for resource development projects, including building a natural gas pipeline.
We are also working with the University of Alaska to maximize our ability to train engineers, health care professionals and other positions that face workforce shortages in our state.
Recruitment for state positions across rural Alaska continues to be a challenge. It is my goal that by reaching out to our rural residents, we can encourage Alaskans to get the training and education necessary to fill these positions.
Finding trained professionals in some areas is a challenge: public health aides, heavy equipment operators, power plant technicians, electricians, aircraft mechanics, pilots and teachers.
But filling a position and keeping that person in the position are two different challenges. One program that is making a difference in recruitment and retention is Alaska’s nationally recognized Rural Teacher, Health and Public Safety Professional Housing program. So far, this program has helped 210 teachers and 142 nurses in 31 different communities.
And it gives me great pleasure to announce $9.1 million in housing grants from the Denali Commission and the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation to the following communities:
Nome Professional Housing§ New Stuyahok Teacher Housing § Akiachak Health Professional§Renovation & §Public Safety Housing § Arctic Village Teacher Housing §Shunganak Teacher Housing Renovation Selawik Teacher§ Tanana Teacher Housing §Fort Yukon Teacher Housing White Mountain Teacher§ Nanwalek Teacher Housing §Housing Renovation False§ King Cove Professional § Shaktoolik Teacher Housing §Housing Minto Teacher§ Kaltag Teacher Housing §Pass Professional Housing Allakaket Teacher Housing§Housing
We have funded, through the Welfare to Work program, increased vocational training opportunities for young adults. For instance, we have provided grants to the North Slope Borough and Northwest Arctic Borough School District to train young people for careers in technology and to fund a counseling certification program to strengthen the local workforce.
Public access to good health care in a state as huge as Alaska poses great challenges. We must work together to stop epidemics like obesity, diabetes, suicide and substance abuse.
In February I created the Alaska Health Care Strategies Planning Council to advise my administration on improving access to quality health care while reducing the escalating costs of health care for Alaskans.
The Council, which includes a member of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and a nurse from rural Alaska, will soon submit a health care action plan. Their recommendations will be presented for public comment in December.
Health care is everyone’s job, not just in treating illness but in promoting healthy living. We must take personal responsibility, engaging our minds and hands in meaningful work – all essential components of healthy, secure lifestyles and communities. We’ve got to change the patterns that too many Alaskans fall into.
We all see Alaska’s climate is changing. We are all feeling the effects – coastal erosion, thawing permafrost, retreating sea ice and record forest fires are affecting our communities and our infrastructure.
I created Alaska’s first Climate Change Sub-cabinet to consolidate our knowledge about the expected effects of global warming in Alaska. It will recommend measures to prepare our communities and residents for expected effects. It will also recommend how the state should participate in local, regional and national efforts to respond to changes.
We are all paying a higher price for energy and I understand very well the hardships this is causing Alaskans. This crisis is affecting families, schools, local governments and local businesses.
Affordable, accessible energy is the key to a sustainable economy. That is why I fully funded the Power Cost Equalization program that offsets the cost of electricity for citizens in rural Alaska who are often paying three to five times what urban Alaskans are paying.
We also provided $48 million for municipal revenue sharing in last year’s budget. This provides financial assistance to incorporated and unincorporated communities to help fund needed public services such as education, water and sewer, police, roads, health care and fire protection – and also helps offset the high cost of energy.
Government close to the people should have the strongest voice in determining their needs and priorities. I support sharing the wealth and I support local government – and next session I will again support revenue sharing.
We can’t talk about what we’ve accomplished in the last 10 months, without including our work to pass AGIA – our legislation that will allow us to build a natural gas pipeline. A gas pipeline is a key part of our state’s future. It will provide affordable energy and good jobs for Alaskans. We will also take care to ensure that a natural gas pipeline would cause minimal impact on sensitive Arctic environments.
As proud as I am of what we’ve accomplished with the legislature during this first year, we have much more to do to.
We must address affordable energy for all of Alaska. I’m forging a new comprehensive energy policy for the state that will set us on a path to reliable, affordable energy now – and in the future – for all Alaskans. We are building our plans based on work done by the Legislature’s Energy Policy Task Force and the Alaska Energy Authority, focusing on conservation and energy efficiency, comprehensive planning, new fuel sources and sustainable energy.
We are continuing to work with the Denali Commission to identify and provide state and federal funds for critical needs. The Commission has targeted more than $35 million each year toward energy projects – from bulk fuel and rural power system upgrades to renewable fuels such as hydro, wind and geo-thermal projects.
We will continue to strengthen our partnership with the Denali Commission and other partners to promote rural funding and foster economic development, from health care to infrastructure for all of Alaska.
I understand that economic change is difficult. This is especially true in our rural communities, where the lack of roads and other infrastructure present such challenges to economic development. We must learn from our mistakes and build on our successes to create sustainable economies so that our rural communities and villages can thrive.
One source of economic development is further developing our mining industry. While this is a lightening rod for any discussion, we must allow any project a fair opportunity for complete study and evaluation in order to weigh the costs and benefits.
Alaska has stringent laws and regulations in place. My promise to you is that my administration will enforce the laws to the letter. We will ensure protection of our fishing and environmental resources so they will not be compromised or endangered by any development.
However we will also ensure that all landowners have an opportunity to develop their land base in a reasonable fashion, within the requirements of our environmental laws.
We can’t speak of economics in Alaska without discussing oil and gas taxes. I called a special session – underway now – to address the failing PPT. It’s obvious that we need a fair return and appropriate value for our own very valuable non-renewable resources.
We will continue to work with lawmakers who set the tax rate to continue to move Alaska to the forefront of new exploration and investment opportunities – while we restore the trust you deserve and demand in your oil and gas valuation system.
Again, there is much work ahead. Earlier this year, I attended a meeting in Juneau with the Central Council of Tlingit-Haida where I was asked about my intention for hiring a rural advisor.
After reflecting on the incredible work to be done and the issues to be addressed, I realized that we need the right person – someone with a true understanding of rural Alaska. Someone to help seek input from our communities and someone to coordinate efforts across the state so that we can use our resources wisely and make a positive difference.
I am so pleased to announce that I have named a rural advisor – Rhonda McBride will serve as my rural coordinator.
Rhonda has covered Alaska Native and rural issues for almost two decades, first at KYUK Radio in Bethel, then at the Alaska Public Radio Network and later at KTUU in Anchorage.
Her experiences and commitment to Alaska give her insight into rural lifestyles and Native values. Rhonda will research the issues, talk to people and help find answers.
Thank you for your precious time today. Let me leave you with a heartfelt message – my door is always open and I truly welcome your input. I believe that together we can make a difference.
God Bless You All.
Speech from http://www.gov.state.ak.us/speeches.php?id=736.