KODIAK — Governor Walker and Mark Begich were due to go head-to-head in Kodiak’s traditional gubernatorial fisheries debate last night, with Mike Dunleavy set to be a no-show. Following Walker’s suspension of his re-election campaign, however, the debate was cancelled. But Begich still opted to visit the Emerald Isle.
As a result of the cancellation, Begich said he tried to make the most of his time in Kodiak, meeting as many people as possible to ensure that the public knows which policies and issues are important to him.
Prior to sitting down for an interview with the Kodiak Daily Mirror Monday, Begich visited the Kodiak Electric Association, Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center and several of the fish processing facilities on the island. For the rest of the day, he was scheduled to join locals in encouraging early voting, as well as visit Kodiak High School and Kodiak College. He was also set to attend a couple of meet-and-greets and a town hall meeting at the Afognak Building on Near Island, among other items.
“Here’s the best way to say it: The schedule’s on three pages,” he said, laughing during an interview with KDM.
KDM: Can you tell me much about the conversation you had with Gov. Walker before he announced that he was suspending his campaign?
Mark Begich: We had conversations prior to all of this. A lot of people think, ‘Did this happen just after what happened to the Lt. Governor?’ The answer is no, because we have a common desire for the state. We’re both born and raised here. And there was just a concern that we both shared about the direction that Mike Dunleavy would go.
We’re not even sure which Dunleavy was running. We had one that served in the legislature that cut public safety, cut education and he wanted to do boarding schools again for the villages, like the 1800s. With the PFD, he has failed to tell the public that he voted nine times not to protect the PFD when he had a chance. He was for SB91. Then, he was against SB91. So there’s a “record” Dunleavy, and now there’s this “new” Dunleavy that’s been created. Both the Governor and I saw this as a huge concern, because they’re trying to create someone that he’s not. We had these conversations, and we both care deeply at Alaska. And, I have to say, the Governor’s actions were unbelievably courageous. He put Alaska first. Personally, I’m thankful, because it unified our efforts.
KDM: So do you think there was always going to be a political need for one of you to drop out?
MB: Potentially. I think we were both concerned, because Mike Dunleavy’s brother (who has been helping to fund Dunleavy’s campaign) and the RGA (Republican Governors Association) had so much money: $3 million. I mean, it’s just an enormous amount of money. What’s more amazing about it is these people don’t even care. One of the first TV ads they put up, they spelled Dunleavy’s name wrong. That’s how crazy it is. And, at that point, we had gone through — not as many as we’d hoped — but at least some debates with Mike Dunleavy. And, we were realizing that his math doesn’t add up, he’ll probably bankrupt the state the way he’s going, his ability to be something different to what he was was unbelievable, and I think we both came to the conclusion that we’ve got to do something. The Governor did an amazing thing in many ways and it’s a rare thing for an individual in office to do what he did.
KDM: What kind of involvement have you had in Alaska’s fisheries over your career?
MB: Not as a commercial fisherman, but when I served in the U.S. Senate, I was the chair of the Fisheries Committee. So I dealt with all the folks in fisheries, whether they be subsistence users, sports, commercial especially because of the amount of business and activity they do. I worked on the first major redraft of the Magnuson-Stevens Act. We had gotten it almost done when the election occurred and I lost – but basically working with all these user groups and trying to figure out the right balance and move it forward. We also worked on a variety of other things. Sometimes it’s issues with financing for ships to figuring out the balance of who’s on the North Pacific Fisheries board to dealing with the science or politics and making sure there’s enough money for research.
KDM: What do you think is the greatest threat to Alaska’s fisheries?
MB: I think climate change is one of the biggest threats. We have a lot of ability to understand fisheries stock and what we have, but what we don’t understand as much, or have a lack of control of, is the impact of acidification and warming of waters. Because of that, it leaves us at a real disadvantage to understand what is going on here. The University of (Alaska) Southeast is doing some interesting research right now on the impacts of acidification and warming waters on shrimp, which I think is great, but woefully underfunded. We need to have more partnerships with foundations and the federal government on this research. And, we should be known around the world for this research. Why? Because we are the test lab. If we can figure out at least how to mitigate or help lessen the impact, at the end of the day, we could export that knowledge throughout the world.
KDM: With this in mind, do you have a vision for the future Alaska’s fisheries that goes beyond just reacting to each disaster or stock failure as it happens?
MB: I don’t want to say I have this grand plan, because I think you have to engage a lot of different people, but your point about having a 30-year kind of vision – that’s how I like to think about things. It’s hard because most voters want to think about this moment in time, but I think good leadership is about how you think 20, 30 years out. That’s where the research is critical, because the research has to be consistently funded and done, so that, over time, you can see patterns or no patterns. That’s one of the things I’ll focus on a great deal, is how can we create a sustainable model of investment for research that goes beyond my time in office. So that’s a piece of it.
The other thing I would say, you’re always going to have these ups and downs at this point, so there’s always going to be fish wars to a certain extent. And, that’s understandable, but what we should have is more consistent management of our fisheries, so it’s not so politicized through the Board of Fish. The challenge we have right now is we’ve lost a lot of knowledgeable people in Fish and Game. Part of it is paying benefits, but part of it is they’re just demoralized over there because of budget cuts and the impact.
Then, the Board starts deciding that they’re the scientists. And they’re not and they can’t forget that. You have these biologists and scientists who work for the Board of Fish and the commissioner – these are the people that have historical information and data that’s critical to make policy. So, we have to figure out how to get the ship righted to a certain extent.
KDM: How do you propose to maintain that funding?
MB: Here’s what I’ve learned about being in a legislative body: No budget is the right amount. That’s just the way it is. So, what you have to do is select your priorities. What I mean by that is: Are the fisheries important to Alaska? The answer is simply: Yes. So, just as much as we invest in the oil and gas division (and others), we should be thinking about fisheries in the same way. It’s a long term economic value to the state and has an enormous amount of Alaskan families attached to it.
So we have to figure out: Can we create some sustainable flow of resource? And I would look at this and, for example, we know that there’s a certain amount of fish tax that’s coming into the state. Is there a way to capture that in a way that’s more structured, so it’s consistent. In other words, so that it’s not thrown just into the general fund.
For example, in Anchorage, with our transit department – when you paid into the transit fund, that money stayed with the transit fund. It kind of flowed back in. The question people have is: Well, you can’t do that constitutionally, because it doesn’t allow for dedicated funds. But is there something that we can do around fisheries that creates this mechanism, because, if you don’t fund this research on an annual basis, it’s partially wasted resources – because the consistency and making sure it’s continual is what’s important.
KDM: You’ve voiced your support for Ballot Measure No. 1, an initiative that aims to update laws surrounding salmon habitats. Why do you think it’s necessary?
MB: I support Ballot Proposition 1. It’s one of the few resource permits that are allocated that don’t have a public comment process and I believe in public comment. Alaskans, with an important resource like this, should have an ability to comment on megaprojects. It’s one of the few resource permits that don’t have that process built in, and I think it should.
Also, I think we need to make sure proper mitigation is done when you do a project. If it doesn’t pass, I think we need to work with all the stakeholders, not just one side – because I think both sides recognize that the regulations need to be re-examined. When I was mayor, we never had an initiative hit the ballot. Why? Because we sat down with opposing views and said, look, we’re all here together. And, if we take everyone on their word here, both sides say we are all supportive of fish. Now what do we do to make sure that public process is available. The key, I think, is: Don’t have a public process that is designed to just kill off projects because you can delay them. If a project is bad, it should die on its merit; if a project is good, it should survive on its merit.
KDM: The state’s salmon hatchery program is currently at the center of an ongoing discussion over the possible degradation of wild salmon stocks. Where do you stand on hatcheries?
MB: I support the hatchery programs. I know there are concerns about the impact to the ecosystems and the ocean’s capacity for fish. From my perspective, I’d want to hear more about it, but I support the hatchery programs. I think they’ve been successful for the state in a lot of ways, but we also have to hear what people are now talking about.
I haven’t been presented science that says the hatchery programs are killing wild salmon. I think it’s a localized issue and if it’s localized, that’s what we should focus on and try to figure out what’s going on in the Cook Inlet region, because that’s where the people are concerned. What we should do is focus there and not start dragging in other areas. I don’t hear it here, I don’t hear it in the Southeast. We should look at that as a regional issue.
KDM: Zooming out to a state and federal level, do you think that President Donald Trump’s trade war with China is a concern for Alaska?
MB: Yes! Donald Trump is costing Alaskans millions of dollars if you look at the numbers. It’s estimated that, in China, we’re adding three quarters of a billion in tariffs on top of what we’re selling in finished and raw product. I think this pissing match between Trump and China is hurting Alaska on many fronts: fishing, steel and other things. I think, in the case of Trump, it’s a dangerous thing for us.
So, what I’d want to do right away is call my friends who are governors of both Washington and Oregon, who are Democrats, and my friends in the gulf who are Republican governors and team up with them, bring a bipartisan group and start lobbying the state department and the president and say, ‘Look, you’ve got to get these tariffs off our fish. Because the minute China decides to buy from another country, that’s it, we’ve lost them. And we can’t afford that.’ These Twitter spats that he has cost us.
KDM: While Gov. Walker’s decision to cut the Permanent Fund dividend led to his approval ratings dropping, he’s argued that he did it to protect the permanent fund for future generations. In that situation, would you have done the same thing?
MB: No. The reason is: I think the people who that hurt were the people who could least afford it. If you’re in Western Alaskan making $15,000 and you get a cut to the dividend, it impacts you. If you live in a low-income neighborhood in Anchorage, it impacts you. Now, if you’re wealthy, it may not, obviously.
Now, what I would do is … 50 percent would go into a constitutionally guaranteed dividend — which would be slightly higher than the Governor’s — and take the other 50 percent of the annual flow and put it to constitutionally protect education. And, I would add pre-K to that. So we take education out of the debate as constitutionally protected — this would require the vote of the people — and the dividend. If we leave it on the table, they’ll debate the size of the dividend every year and never get to the big issues that we need to face as a state.
This is dramatically different to what Dunleavy has proposed. His numbers will add $1.6 billion to the deficit of the state, because he doesn’t inflation-proof the corpus of the Permanent Fund, in his plan. If you don’t inflation-proof it, over time you won’t have a dividend.
KDM: Your fiscal plan has a lot of long-term elements, and you also talk about the need for new revenues. Where do you see these coming from?
MB: First, there are two revenues I will not support. One is a gas tax, because it hurts rural Alaska the most. In rural Alaska, everything from their snow machines, their heating fuels, are all gas-taxed and they already have high costs. Second, is a wage tax — and that’s different to an income tax. People who get a wage from their company can just say, ‘Don’t pay me a wage, give me a dividend.’ But you get a wage; you pay the tax.
So, you get no tax on interest, dividend, rental income. But if you are working, you’ll pay it. That seems very regressive to me
So, what would an income tax look like, I’m not closing any options. It could be income, sales, could be seasonal sales could be corporate, could be a mix of all that. I’ll have to figure out how to get eleven senators and 21 state house members to get this to happen. So, I’ll have to figure out where that sweet spot is. And, I think it has to be a balanced approach, but you can only do this one time. If you debate this every single year like they’ve been doing, you burn up savings accounts, you don’t get solutions and you never grow the economy.
This interview has been edited for brevity.