Begich’s focus on education takes lawmakers by surprise
JUNEAU - Sen. Mark Begich downplayed partisanship during his sixth annual address to the state Legislature Monday.
He talked of the strong partnerships he has with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Congressman Don Young and Republican members of the Alaska delegation.
Begich also praised lawmakers for their help in winning money for federal programs — as well as sparing them from the budget ax. He also emphasized his ability to cross party lines to do what’s best for Alaska.
“For example I support a bill with Sen. Rand Paul on auditing the feds,” Begich said. “I’m the only Democrat on that bill, as I learned from my majority leader. It was a good conversation. I explained I’m from Alaska. He got it.”
Begich also said he’s also co-sponsoring a constitutional amendment for a balanced federal budget.
Many lawmakers had expected Begich to spend more time addressing a chronic issue in the Legislature – what lawmakers claim are instances of federal overreach, in which the federal government usurps state authority.
The issue came to the forefront Friday when the Environmental Protection Agency put the state on notice that it may eventually block the Pebble Mine project to protect salmon in the Bristol Bay watershed.
The mine is on state land, and the EPA’s decision comes even before the state’s permitting process has begun.
Although Begich briefly touched on federal overreach, he didn’t mention the EPA decision at all in his speech — and lawmakers didn’t bring it up either during the Q&A period following Begich’s address.
Reporters did raise the issue at a news conference. Begich said he doesn’t think the EPA’s action would affect other Alaska mining projects. He also said he doesn’t believe this is a case of federal overreach at this point because the EPA is acting within the confines of the law.
What surprised lawmakers was Begich’s focus on education.
“To be blunt, I don’t agree with what’s happened in this building on education funding in recent years,” Begich said.
He compared it to building a fire in a woodstove but refusing to add enough wood.
“I know some of you will say there’s been enough wood for the fire,” Begich said.
Begich said the real question is whether the funding has kept pace with the ability of schools to do their jobs.
Begich also said he opposed a constitutional amendment that would allow public money to be used to subsidize the costs of students enrolled in private schools.
“I believe strongly we should never amend the Alaska Constitution as a fix for education,” Begich told lawmakers. “Public dollars are for public education. Period.”
Begich’s son, Jacob, a sixth grader, attends a private school in Washington, D.C. Begich said this doesn’t change his feelings about spending state money on private schools.
“I’m not asking for public money to pay for Jacob’s school. That’s the difference. OK. I’m paying for it,” said Begich, who also noted that prior to his family’s move to Washington, D.C., his son attended public school.
Begich said the state needs to make sure young Alaskans are prepared to make the most of the opportunities ahead in the 21st century economy.
Sen. Anna Fairclough, a Republican from Eagle River, told Begich cutbacks in federal funding are part of the problem and the Anchorage School District lost $45 million in federal money.
Some Republicans questioned Begich’s focus on state education funding.
“I thought it was fascinating,” said Sen. Mike Dunleavy, a Wasilla Republican who also serves on the Senate Education Committee. “That’s our job, and in the next breath, he’s talking about the battle over federal overreach.”
Rep. Geran Tarr, an Anchorage Democrat and educator, said she had no problems with Begich’s discussion of state education funding.
“We heard Senator Murkowski call for paying teachers more and loan forgiveness,” Tarr said. “I think we can look to both of them as experienced policymakers and good ideas can come from anywhere.”
But late in the afternoon, House Speaker Mike Chenault slammed Begich in a press release for what he called a “Beltway-style” speech.
In the statement, Chenault said, “Instead, what Alaskans heard today was more spin from Sen. Begich, and few solutions.”