My Turn: Southeast Alaska is doing OK under Murkowski

Posted: Sunday, November 16, 2003

Eight of Alaska's business leaders asked Gov. Frank Murkowski in a letter this week to take three steps to solve the state's fiscal problem of spending more than it takes in: control spending, tap the Permanent Fund and consider a broad-based tax.

What the business leaders missed was a fourth step that Murkowski advocated when running for election: marketing more of Alaska's resources to bring jobs and revenue to the state. A subsection of that step is to build infrastructure to make marketing more economic. That step earned him support of 70 percent of the Republicans in the primary and 55 percent of all Alaska voters in the general.

The governor worked on that fourth step in the weeks before he received the letter. Early last week he hosted the president of Taiwan and Taiwanese business leaders to sell them on Alaska's seafood and energy resources. The sales pitch the week before was to the Japanese.

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Aside from that, the governor has been busy with instate programs boosting Alaska. An example is in Southeast Alaska, which despite the collapse of its timber industry and threats to its salmon industry from farmed salmon, is benefiting from Murkowski leadership.

Saturday the governor flew to Sitka to announce Sitka businessman Bert Stedman as his choice for the State Senate A seat, which Robin Taylor vacated to accept a mission with the Department of Transportation.

When Republicans from House Districts 1 and 2 submitted suggestions for a replacement, they voted Rep. Peggy Wilson of Wrangell first, Stedman second, and Jim Elkins of Ketchikan and Rollo Pool of Sitka tied for third.

Murkowski at first picked Elkins, then had second thoughts. Wilson withdrew her name, so the governor went to second on the list. Congratulations to Stedman, active in local elective office and with roots going back to Petersburg where he spent his early school years.

The governor then flew to Ketchikan to meet with local Republicans disappointed that the governor had withdrawn Elkins' name for the job. The meeting was cordial. Elkins spoke and shook hands with the governor, as did other Republicans, at the end of the meeting.

To Elkins' credit, he took an approach a little classier than many politicians. Instead of blaming the media by claiming he had been misquoted in statements that were unacceptable to the governor, he went to media outlets and publicly thanked his supporters.

Now representation in the Legislature is fairly distributed along the Panhandle. Ketchikan and Saxman have Rep. Bill Williams of Saxman; Wrangell has Rep. Peggy Wilson and has Jean Ellis of Petersburg as chief of staff. Albert Kookesh of Angoon represents Southeast's outlying points from Hyder to Haines-Skagway. Juneau, the most populous Southeast area, has two representatives, Beth Kerttula and Bruce Weyhrauch, and a senator, Kim Elton. And now Sitka has Stedman.

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Southeast Alaskans really have no complaint about the Panhandle's treatment by the Murkowski Administration. It's evenhanded and progressive. Sitka got the Senate seat; Juneau gets the fast ferry to share with Skagway and Haines as well as Sitka. It looks like Ketchikan might become ferry system headquarters. Wrangell, Petersburg and Prince of Wales have Robin Taylor of Wrangell working full time to bring about construction of the Bradfield Road connection to the Canadian highway system. The governor has renewed the study on a road from Juneau to Skagway. Those road projects will improve access to Southeast, lowering the cost of living and promoting the visitor business.

When Murkowski was a U.S. Senator he obtained federal authorization for the Southeast Alaska Power Intertie, the first phase of which is under construction and the second phase is in planning.

Southeast residents also are happy about the governor appointing the new Marine Transportation Advisory Board, on which a few of them sit. Appointment of such a board has been long overdue to examine statewide ferry system operation. In Southeast the system has experienced a disastrous 10-year downward trend. Passenger boardings have dropped from 372,680 in 1992 to 263,040 in 2002. Vehicle boardings are down from 97,239 in 1992 to 76,384 in 2002. Whether the new high-speed ferry will reverse that trend by providing frequent, affordable service is yet to be seen. To make ferry travel affordable is why some roads are being pushed.

The ferry system operates mainliners that are older than most of those ships, affectionately called "rust buckets," that Alaska Steamship Company used to carry passenger until 1951. Cheaper air transportation, high cost of crewing old, inefficient ships and opening the Alaska Highway - roads! - ended Alaska Steam passenger service.

The marine board was created by Administrative Order 204 in January. Also created was the Aviation Advisory Board, another needed board to get the voice of the people affected by transportation heard by public officials.

Administrative Order 204 is the same concept Gov. Tony Knowles used to name advisors for trails, which defines the difference between the two administrations.

• Lew M. Williams Jr. can be reached by e-mail at lmwjr@worldnet.att.net.



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