Ted Stevens gave a positive outlook for Alaska's economic future and played down his diminished role in Congress on Thursday in a speech to Alaska legislators.
Alaska's senior senator no longer holds the purse strings to the legislative budget because he had to step down from the Senate Appropriations Committee. But he's taken a new role that's important for the state, he said.
"As Ronald Reagan once said - this is not the end of anything. This is the beginning of everything," Stevens said.
Recently appointed co-chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, Stevens said the position has "wide jurisdiction with many issues important to Alaska families, including aviation, communications, oceans, global climate change and disaster prevention."
Stevens said he would hold firm to a promise to make reauthorization of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Magnuson-Stevens Act - the nation's major piece of fishing legislation that he had a large role in developing - his top priorities.
Stevens also said in his speech that Alaska must act to prevent legal or administrative delays to the proposed multi-billion-dollar North Slope gas pipeline.
"The pipeline is particularly time-sensitive. It is vulnerable to the potential advent of massive quantities of (foreign liquefied natural gas) on our shores by 2013. And, our nation cannot wait for the resolution of lengthy court battles," he told legislators.
Stevens told reporters after the speech that he thinks it is possible to restore funding for North Slope gas hydrates research - which is slated for discontinuation in the federal budget.
Some state legislators are keenly interested in obtaining Stevens' support for continued research on gas hydrates, which they believe is critical to Alaska's future in energy production.
"We have asked for a five year extension" of the research program with a total funding of $70 million, said Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole. He said the ideal place to prove the technology is Prudhoe Bay.
"We're not quite there yet. It's time to take some theories out to the field," Therriault said.
House Minority Leader Johnny Ellis said Stevens soft-pedaled Bush administration budget cuts that have a potential to severely impact Alaska programs.
Funding for the Denali Commission and the state's Medicaid program are "on the chopping block," Ellis said.
"I'm hoping he will fight Bush on some of these things that negatively affect Alaska," Ellis said. "Alaska is in the cross hairs of Bush's budget. Well, if he is such a buddy (with Bush), prove it. Protect us against some of these tax cuts," said Ellis, an Anchorage Democrat.
Stevens told reporters that Alaska has "got to define new missions if we want to get new money." He noted that Defense Department costs in fighting terrorism are staggering.
"I don't see how we can push the deficit much further," Stevens said. It would be a "tough task" to readjust funding, he said, but "we've got ways to get in there and make some changes."
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at email@example.com.