Stedman: Divide in legislature is widening
According to veteran state Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, the ideological divide between urban and rural legislators is beginning to influence Alaska’s future as much if not more than the traditional partisan dichotomy of Republican vs. Democrat.
Stedman, who represents Haines in Senate District Q, recently wrapped up his tenth session in the Alaska Legislature.
Alarmed by the declining influence of legislators in rural Alaska and the increasingly consolidated clout of policymakers in the Interior and Southcentral, Stedman this session organized a formalized Coastal Caucus comprised of five legislators. All five are part of the Senate’s Republican majority.
Stedman said he hopes to have the caucus meet more often to discuss and strategize on energy and transportation issues in rural Alaska, as the legislature at large seemed to ignore these topics. “The concentration of effort was solely in the Railbelt. They weren’t even on the table for discussion,” Stedman said.
In terms of the ferry system, Stedman said he understands the concerns surrounding Gov. Sean Parnell’s replacement of the Alaska Class Ferry with two small shuttle ferries. However, Stedman pointed to budgetary constraints already being placed on the system, and said he believes it will be increasingly difficult to get funding due to perceptions of Railbelt legislators that it’s a subsidy.
“We need to be very cognizant of the cost of the marine highway, or we’ll get up one day and find out it’s not going to run 12 months a year. If you don’t have the votes, you don’t get the appropriation,” Stedman said.
Aside from trying to force the concerns and issues of Southeast Alaskans back into serious consideration, Stedman introduced several pieces of legislation. His sea otter bounty bill, which would require the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to pay $100 per legally-harvested sea otter, drew considerable attention.
Stedman said a rapidly expanding otter population could devastate populations of shellfish and other species. Detractors of the bill say it isn’t constitutional and violates federal law, but Stedman said he will be working with attorneys during the break between sessions to hammer out the bill’s details and make it more palatable.
Stedman also will work on a resolution, introduced during the past session, which urges the governor to acquire more of the Tongass National Forest to revitalize Southeast’s timber industry.
Regarding the passage of the highly controversial Senate Bill 21, which applies more than $1 billion annually in tax cuts to the oil industry to stimulate oil production in the state, Stedman said he is supporting efforts to repeal the bill. (Parnell has not yet signed the bill into law).
Voters are currently collecting signatures for a referendum to be added to next year’s ballot. The bill, which Stedman voted against, “was a flimflam,” he said.
“It should go to a vote of the people that own the oil and have the people decide what they want to do with their resource,” Stedman said.
Stedman voted in favor of House Bill 4, which approved an $8 billion small in-state gas pipeline to transport natural gas from the North Slope to Fairbanks and Southcentral. Stedman said he believed passing the bill for the small line would put pressure on a larger, state-supported project to build an industrial-sized line from the North Slope to Valdez.
“I don’t think (the small line) is going to be the project that moves forward. It’s going to be the major line that moves forward,” Stedman said, guessing that money from the small project will eventually be transferred over to the larger one.
Though Stedman voted against a bill that would deny Medicaid funding to women seeking “elective” abortions, he shied away from discussing the issue, downplaying its significance. “We have a lot of challenges that face the state. Issues like this are very divisive, and I think our time and energy are better spent elsewhere,” Stedman said.
The abortion bill passed the Senate, 14-6.
Stedman said though he has been lobbying and working on behalf of Haines – one of many communities he represents – he maintains a regionwide and statewide perspective when considering the achievements and shortcomings of the session. Regarding the capital budget, for example, he believed his district was “treated fairly” overall.
Haines didn’t receive any money for the 14-item “wish list” of local capital projects sought by the borough – which included Lutak Dock upgrades, slump mitigation and drainage improvements, sewer system upgrades, and renovation/replacement of its public safety building.
Stedman said municipalities should pare the capital projects lists to the most essential, since money is tight. “If, like this year, we’re going to add one project, or we add five or six of seven projects, it’s going to be a lot more beneficial to focus on their one important project for economic expansion.”
Stedman said he is looking forward to visiting Haines in late summer. He intends to discuss pressing capital issues and priorities with local leaders.