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By BECKY BOHRER
JUNEAU — U.S. Sen. Mark Begich on Monday called on the Parnell administration and state lawmakers to make strong commitments to education, give greater support to children’s health insurance and eliminate any obstacles to voting.
The Democrat also used his address to a joint session of Alaska Legislature to express his support for targeted federal spending cuts and his belief that with new faces in Washington there are new opportunities to push for issues important to Alaska. He also encouraged the state to take up creation of an Arctic port authority and put up $2 billion to support $3 billion in federal loan guarantees as part of a bill he’s introduced to speed Arctic port development.
The speech included some sharp language, though Begich told reporters later he’s never been bashful about stating his opinion or issuing challenges to the state in his annual address to lawmakers.
In his speech Monday, Begich said he knew it was popular to complain about federal overreach and "file a lawsuit weekly" over perceived overstepping and that he too has engaged in fed-bashing, "when it gets results." But he said resolutions should be the start of a discussion, not the end, and said litigation should be a last resort because it can get in the way of reaching agreement with an agency.
Gov. Sean Parnell’s administration has not been shy about pushing back when it believes the federal government has overstepped its bounds. But administration officials have stressed they view filing suit as a last resort.
Much of the Legislature’s attention this session has been on federal overreach, with resolutions opposing the president’s executive actions aimed at reducing gun violence and urging Congress to limit overreach in state resource management. The Alaska House recently passed a bill that would make it a felony for a federal official or agent to try to enforce new restrictions on gun ownership — a measure Begich labeled unconstitutional and irrelevant. He initially used that description when asked about a House resolution opposing the executive actions but clarified later he was referring to the bill, HB69, not the resolution.
Begich said he will continue to fight against keeping the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge locked up from production and to protect Second Amendment rights. He said it’s "no accident" that drilling in the Alaska Arctic got the OK after his election in 2008, telling reporters later that he used every opportunity with the Obama administration, which took office around the same time as Begich, to make the case for Arctic drilling.
Begich said there must be a commitment to education on the federal, state and local levels, calling a good education "one of the long-standing promises of our democracy." He said he is introducing legislation that, among other things, would create a student loan forgiveness program for graduates of early education programs and increase the child-care tax credit.
He said he’s "troubled" by pending cuts in Alaska school districts and said it’s important to make Alaska’s public schools, universities and vocational programs stronger and more viable. He made a point of underscoring "public schools."
"What I say about public education is, don’t, just because there are problems and challenges with it, say, ‘Well, we’ve got to throw it all out,’" he said during a question-and-answer period with legislators, adding later that improving public education should be their goal.
There has been considerable debate in the Legislature over the issue of choice and a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow for public money to be used for private schools.
Begich said it’s "shameful" that Alaska’s eligibility level for children’s health insurance is low — 49th in the country.
He said he’s also worried about what he sees as trends to make voting more difficult in Alaska, particularly for Alaska Natives and other minority groups. The state last year sued over provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act, arguing, in part, that the requirement that the Justice Department approve redistricting plans or proposed election changes is unwarranted. That case is on hold pending the outcome of a U.S. Supreme Court case.
A bill also has been introduced in the House that calls for voters to present identification to cast their ballots. Begich said the measure would make it harder for many rural Alaskans to vote.
"There is not a problem here" with voter fraud, Begich said.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, said he strongly supports a person’s right to vote and called Begich misinformed. Under HB3, the identification requirement could be waived if two election officials know the voter’s identity and he or she is on the official registration list to vote in a given precinct.
"Instilling fear in the voting public is politics at its worst," Lynn said in a statement.