Less than two weeks after Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, addressed the Alaska State Legislature, Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, followed up with his own annual speech on Monday, which saw him both commiserate with and chide state legislators on a host of state and federal issues.
Begich alternated between defending and aligning himself with the Legislature and directly criticizing some of the state’s actions throughout his speech.
After inveighing against “out-of-control federal spending” and touting his support of “tax incentives” for oil and gas companies, Begich turned to the subject of disputes between the state and federal governments.
“I know it’s popular, especially in this building, to bemoan the ‘federal overreach’ and file a lawsuit weekly against the latest perceived federal oversteps,” Begich said, a rather prickly segue into talking about his efforts to protect Eielson Air Force Base from proposed cuts. “I have certainly participated, I will acknowledge, in my own share of fed-bashing when it gets results.”
Begich put himself squarely at odds with many Republican legislators on several more issues, speaking in favor of tying school funding to inflation and increasing state funding for Denali KidCare while voicing opposition to increasing the state’s voter identification requirements and providing vouchers for families to send their children to private schools.
Responding to a question from Rep. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, after the speech, Begich referred to House Bill 69, which makes it a felony under state law for a federal agent to attempt to enforce any federal restrictions on gun onwership in Alaska, as “unconstitutional” and “irrelevant,” although he acknowledged the House was making a “statement” by passing it last week.
Although much of what Begich said seemed to court controversy in the Republican-dominated Legislature, some parts of his speech earned plaudits from across the aisle.
Begich mentioned visits he has made to Auke Bay Elementary School and the University of Alaska Southeast’s Center for Mine Training, as well as his push in the Senate to put shop classes back in public high schools.
Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau, said she appreciated that Begich addressed vocational education and the Center for Mine Training, of which she has been a champion in the Alaska House of Representatives.
“I think that helps give us a little extra boost as we go into the closeout of the operating budget,” said Muñoz, a member of the House Finance Committee who chaired the subcommittee on the University of Alaska’s budget.
At the end of his speech, Begich argued against increasing Alaska’s voter identification requirements, saying new laws “would make it harder to vote for many of our rural Alaskans, who often don’t have photo IDs.” He cited the grandparents of two of his staffers as examples.
“Let’s be honest,” Begich said. “There is not a problem here. Unless I missed it in all the elections I have been involved, I haven’t seen the fraud that people talk about. It sounds good, but it’s not realistic.”
Those remarks earned scattered applause from mostly Democratic legislators, but silence from many Republicans.
“He stood up real strongly on that one,” said House Minority Leader Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, after the speech.
Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, praised Begich’s comments on voter ID as well.
But Begich’s remarks angered Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, who has introduced a bill to make Alaska’s voter ID requirement stricter.
Lynn put out a written statement Monday afternoon blasting Begich as “misinformed” and defending his bill, noting it includes a provision allowing voters to show two non-photo IDs or be identified by two election workers in order to vote instead of showing a photo ID.
Asked about Begich’s occasionally combative tone, Muñoz said she was not bothered.
“It’s just a little healthy sparring,” said Muñoz. “A little healthy sparring is always good. I didn’t take offense to it at all.”
“He kind of slammed some stuff,” Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, said. “I don’t know. I mean, I think that we can pass these resolutions, but I think that in a lot of ways he’s correct.”
Egan added, “It doesn’t hurt, I don’t think, for sitting members of Congress to tell us. You know, it always doesn’t have to be wine and roses. You know, I think that we need to hear things like that. And I, personally, I appreciated that he did it.”
Kerttula said, “I think he was trying to get it across that we’re all Alaskans, that he’s going to talk straight to us about what he believes, and that we need to work together on the tough issues but come away from these issues that are so divisive and aren’t really rooted in reality.”
Lynn was less appreciative of Begich’s critiques.
“I think it’s inappropriate for him to come down to Juneau and try to put his pea-picking hands on state legislation,” said Lynn, reeling off federal issues Begich and his fellow members of Congress have yet to deal with. “He has enough to attend to in Washington, D.C., and he needs to get busy.”
Begich was asked during the press conference about the tone of his speech.
“I’m not bashful about telling the way I want to see things here and where I think I disagree with them,” Begich said of the state legislators.
Through her staff, Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, declined to comment for this story.
Kreiss-Tomkins said he appreciated Begich’s focus on education during the speech and called him “an independent voice.”
Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, was the only Southeast legislator who was not present for Begich’s speech. He left Juneau Sunday to prepare for this week’s Energy Council meeting in Washington, D.C., which he is chairing.
Begich was the keynote speaker at the Tongass Democratic Party’s Juneau Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner Sunday night. He also spoke at a Native Issues Forum event at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall Monday.
At that forum, Begich was introduced by Sealaska Heritage Institute President Rosita Worl as “someone very special to Alaska” before being officially adopted into the Daklaweidi clan of Tlingit, the “Killer Whale” clan.
“Thank you for this great honor,” Begich said. “I will do my best every day to live up to it. If I don’t, I know Rosita will remind me.”
• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 586-1821 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.