Gov. Tony Knowles filed a package of anti-terrorism bills Monday and his top military advisor spent today defending it before lawmakers.
Maj. Gen. Phil Oates told a legislative committee today Alaska has taken steps to bolster state defenses against terrorist threats but it needs to do more to ensure public safety.
"The evildoers are open for business and trying to recruit," said Oates, commissioner of the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.
"I believe there is a threat to Alaska," added Oates, speaking to the House Special Committee on Military and Veterans Affairs.
But some members of the panel questioned the scope of the bills, which come with a price tag of $102 million. Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Chenault touted the hearing as an opportunity to learn why Knowles is using fear of terrorism to justify a significant expansion in state spending.
Chenault challenged Knowles' requests for a $13 million food safety lab, $1.9 million for war insurance, $3.5 million for portable bridges and $6.8 million for bomb-proof airports.
"At first blush the governor seems to be using terrorism as an excuse for bigger government," said Chenault, a Nikiski Republican.
The package would fund nearly 150 budget recommendations by Knowles' Terrorism Disaster Policy Cabinet, headed by Oates. The package includes proposals to spend millions of dollars to hire and train more than 60 state troopers, six constables and 20 village public safety officers plus $1 million to set up hazardous-material response teams in Valdez and Juneau.
Emergency workers in Alaska responded to recent anthrax scares even though they lacked proper equipment, Oates said.
"We put them in harm's way," said Oates. "They did so willingly, but we've got to do better."
Knowles also wants millions of dollars to beef up security at airports and the trans-Alaska oil pipeline. But Rep. Fred Dyson was doubtful international terrorists would target Alaska, saying "I don't think the world attaches Alaska to the USA."
"I don't see how we get to be of symbolic value for international terrorists," said Dyson, an Eagle River Republican.
Oates said terrorists tend to target less protected areas and could take aim at the oil pipeline or an oil tanker to make an international statement.
"I don't think I would be quite as secure as you seem to be that we're not vulnerable," Oates said.
Rep. Gary Stevens said there is "a terrible danger" in assuming Alaska will escape notice of terrorists and worried the expansive Alaska-Canada border would make the state vulnerable.
"I imagine it would be fairly easy to smuggle a Sherman tank across the border," said Stevens, a Kodiak Republican.
Knowles' package would be funded with state and federal dollars and also includes measures to:
Increase criminal penalties for terrorism acts, such as damaging an oil pipeline or tampering with aircraft.
Prohibit people from mailing substances with the intent to frighten people or cause harm.
Ensure that state employees who are members of reserve and auxiliary military units are not financially penalized while on certain active duty.
Allow the state to impose penalties of up to $1,100 per incident for violations of an airport security program.
Authorize the governor to exercise emergency civil defense powers in the event of a terrorist attack or a credible threat of a terrorist attack on the state.
Allow Alaska during disasters and emergencies to request personnel, equipment, materials or supplies from states participating in the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, an aid agreement between states.
The committee plans to explore the funding requests in detail this week, Chenault said. Key budget-writer Rep. Eldon Mulder was critical of the bills, saying some of Knowles' proposals would fund new programs that mirror services already provided by the state.
"I think those proposals are going to have a steep uphill climb," said Mulder, co-chairman of the House Finance Committee and an Anchorage Republican.
Senate President Rick Halford called the package "unreasonably large," but gave weight to some of the proposals.
"Obviously, some airport security provisions are necessary and maybe some lab provisions are necessary in Health and Social Services. Those are the two that stand out in my mind as the kind of things we should be looking at," said Halford, a Chugiak Republican.
Kathy Dye can be reached at email@example.com.