Begich defends stimulus spending

Senator warns against spreading perception that Alaska doesn't need the money

Posted: Wednesday, April 08, 2009

All told, as much as $1.5 billion could come to Alaska from the federal economic stimulus package, including money directed at the state, military bases, federal agencies, communities, tribes and non-profits, U.S. Sen. Mark Begich told reporters on Tuesday.

David J. Sheakley / Juneau Empire
David J. Sheakley / Juneau Empire

At a news conference following his first address to the Alaska Legislature, the newly elected Democrat and former Anchorage mayor defended the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act against concerns that it would do more harm than good by further burdening the nation with more debt.

Begich said he believes the stimulus spending will help pull the nation out of a crippling recession.

"I thought it was necessary that you had to put some money into the economy. We met with conservative and liberal economists and significant business leaders to find out what was the right mix, and we felt this was the right move," Begich said.

Begich, the only one in Alaska's three-member congressional delegation to vote for the measure, congratulated state lawmakers on their efforts to make the new law work for Alaska.

Legislative leaders have said they want to accept most of the money and dismissed concerns from Gov. Sarah Palin that it comes with too many strings attached. Palin said last month that she would only ask for 70 percent of the money but, according to lawmakers who met with her last week, she has since indicated a willingness to accept more.

More than $900 million is expected to come directly to Alaska to be disbursed through legislative spending bills, unless Palin exercises her veto pen or fails to direct her commissioners to do the necessary paperwork.

An additional $400 million has already been distributed to federal agencies and the defense department in Alaska, Begich said.

Begich, who planned to meet with Palin while he was in Juneau, warned against spreading a perception that Alaska doesn't need the money.

"I think you should be definitive one way or another, and then we deal with it. I think that would be helpful," Begich said. "Because what I don't want to run into back in Washington, D.C., is the view that Alaska has what they have and they don't need any help from D.C."

Begich's visit to Juneau coincided with news that a federal judge had dismissed the conviction against his opponent in the November election, former longtime Sen. Ted Stevens.

After Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week the Justice Department would seek dismissal because of prosecutorial misconduct, Palin and several prominent Republicans called for Begich to resign and a new election be held. They said the November election just days after Stevens, the longest-serving Republican was convicted, was tainted.

Shortly before Begich spoke to legislators, Palin issued a statement about Stevens.

"I know the agony the senator has felt, and nothing can change what he has gone through or the loss of his Senate seat, which meant the world to him and virtually as much to Alaska. There's no way he can just 'put this behind him' as some have suggested he should," said Palin, who was among many who called on Stevens to resign after being convicted.

On Tuesday, state GOP party chairman Randy Ruedrich again demanded Begich's resignation, saying the state's junior senator came to power through corruption.

"Whether or not he was complicit in this corruption is not important. The reality remains Sen. Begich is the product of that corruption and it is incumbent upon him to cleanse himself, his position, and the democratic process," Ruedrich wrote.

Ruedrich's position puts him at odds with Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young, both Alaska Republicans, who have said Begich should remain in office.

"Nobody should have to go through a trial with so many problems and errors by the prosecutors," Begich said in a statement issued before his address to lawmakers. Begich didn't mention Stevens during his speech, and wouldn't discuss with reporters afterward whether the election was tainted.

"I believe the judge in this case has looked at all of the evidence, all of the activity that occurred, and has made the right decision," his statement says. "I have always said I respect the service Sen. Stevens gave to our state and our country for 40 years and that respect remains today."

Palin and Begich did find some common ground, however, when it came to the Sunday launch of a missile by North Korea, which experts say fell into the ocean despite that nation's claim of success in launching a satellite. Military experts have said a missile launched from North Korea could reach Alaska.

Begich told lawmakers he would fight any funding reduction of the ground-based missile defense system at Fort Greely, 100 miles southeast of Fairbanks.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has proposed holding the Alaska Army base harmless but not adding to it, Begich said.

The launch by North Korea "clearly demonstrates the strong need for the U.S. to continue development and employment of a defensive system to counter this ever increasing threat," Palin said in a statement.

"Failure to adequately defend in this arena would result in dramatic consequences to this nation," she said.

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