Senator Lisa Murkowski spoke with about fifty residents of the Upper Valley on Tuesday on topics ranging from health care to the proposed Susitna-Watana dam. The meeting began with first and second grade students from Talkeetna Elementary sharing some of their favorite books that the school received through a Library of Congress program. Senator Murkowski then gave a brief overview of current activity in Congress, including work on the upcoming federal budget, which she says will be her top priority on returning to Washington.
“This is actually good for us–to have a budget, to have a return to what we would call in Congress regular order.”
The first questions dealt with health care. Senator Murkowski says that she believes the United States has still not achieved meaningful healthcare reform. Speaking specifically about the high cost of care in Alaska, she says that one of the drivers of the cost is a lack of providers.
“When you’ve got 710,000 or thereabouts people in the state, and we don’t have a medical school, we’re always fighting to get the medical professionals up here. That’s part of our problem. We’re not in the [University of Washington] Medical Center down there, where you’ve got providers and hospitals on every corner that can provide competition and bring down costs.”
Senator Murkowski suggested ideas such as the return of the state’s student loan forgiveness program and other incentives to bring in more providers and get more students who go to medical school in the Lower 48 to return once they’re out of school.
After about twenty minutes, the conversation turned to energy, specifically the Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project. While the dam is a state project, some members of the public asked Senator Murkowski’s opinion, and opponents wanted to know what could be done at the federal level to fight the dam. While Senator Murkowski did not offer a final opinion on the dam, she did question whether it and the proposed gas line could be build simultaneously.
“I think it’s important that we as Alaskans look at this critically. You can’t–I suppose you can–have two mega-projects going forward at once. I don’t know as a state that we’re capable of doing that, and I don’t know that it’s wise that we do that.”
When asked about her general support of hydropower, Senator Murkowski says that she tends to support smaller projects that have fewer environmental impacts, such as lake-tap systems. With regard to Susitna, Senator Murkowski says that the state should exercise caution to make sure the project is the right answer for the Railbelt’s energy needs.
Senator Murkowski also touched on alternative energy, including run-of-river hydroelectric, geothermal, and tidal. She says she believes that tidal power could offer a major source of energy to the state.
“I keep saying [that] we’ve got 33,000 miles of coastline. Why we’re not harnessing the power of the tides in a way that should power every little coastal community–all these little fish processors that can’t even afford to make ice because their power is generated by diesel.”
After the town hall, Senator Murkowski answered a few additional questions regarding issues relevant to the Upper Valley, including flood insurance. Last week, the Senate passed a bill that would limit the increase of flood insurance premiums, and requires FEMA to conduct an affordability study for future rate increases. Senator Murkowski says it’s an important step for Alaskans living in or near flood zones.
“I think what is significant with the passage of this flood insurance bill is knowing that homeowners will not have sticker shock of increased rates when it comes to their flood insurance. What we have been able to do is really push back any increase in rates until such time as we have accurate maps.”
In addition to flood insurance, federal funding for areas affected by floods has been an issue of late. In the Mat-Su, the Borough has recently completed more than eighteen months of securing funds from FEMA in order to repair areas impacted by the fall 2012 flood, including the dike near the end of Main Street in Talkeetna. Senator Murkowski says that struggles with FEMA are common in Alaska, and she believes much of the difficulty stems from the agency not understanding the unique circumstances Alaskans face.
Senator Murkowski says she plans to return to the Upper Valley this summer. The complete recording of Tuesday’s town hall meeting can be found at KTNA.org.