How do you reverse decades of shamefully high suicide rates in rural Alaska? Who should get first crack at hunting and fishing on public land? Is it time to change a much-criticized program that awards billions of dollars in government contracts to Alaska Native corporations?
The three contenders for U.S. Senate tackled some of Alaska's thorniest policy puzzles in their first joint appearance of the general election campaign Thursday in Anchorage.
The event pitted Republican nominee Joe Miller and his message that the federal government is spending itself into bankruptcy against incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Democrat Scott McAdams, each looking to position themselves as the logical alternative in a state fueled by federal funds.
The Alaska Native Professional Association hosted the forum. The issues:
Federal contracts for Alaska Native corporations
The contracting business of Alaska Native corporations has flourished under the U.S. Small Business Administration 8(a) program, which allows Native firms and tribes to apply for no-bid contracts. But critics fault the program for allowing wasteful federal spending, allowing non-Native firms to use Native companies to win contracts and failing to deliver enough benefit for corporation shareholders.
It's going to have to be reformed, Miller told the crowd.
"You scratch your head and wonder, is this really helping?" he said. Miller suggested reforming the standards by which the 8(a) program is applied so that companies are rewarded for directly employing shareholders rather than benefiting subsidiaries or other entities.
"Let's use these programs to put shareholders to work," he said.
McAdams said he supports the program as it exists today.
"As we come up on the 40th anniversary of ANSCA," McAdams said, referring to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act that created regional Alaska Native corporations, "I think it's important that we pause and recognize both the great wealth and great opportunities that have been generated through the 8(a) program."
Murkowski, who has been endorsed by multiple Native corporations, said she supports the program, though not unconditionally. It's yielding benefits and "we must stand behind these programs that allow opportunity for our Alaska Natives," she said.
Murkowski also called for accountability. "We need to make sure when we're talking about government contracting, we get the value that we had intended."
When it comes to deciding who gets the first opportunity to hunt and fish for subsistence purposes on public lands in Alaska, state and federal rules are at odds. In contrast to the state constitution, federal law calls for preference for rural residents.
Candidates at the forum were asked their views on subsistence, and if Alaska Natives "should be restored full hunting and fishing rights?"
Rather than having federal officials take over management, maybe the federal law ought to change, Miller said.
"Instead of saying we have a priority for a rural area, perhaps there should be a priority for those that do have a subsistence use," he said.
McAdams held the opposing view, calling not only for a subsistence preference for rural hunters and fishermen, but a preference for Alaska Natives as well.
"Just because you decide to move to Anchorage or Fairbanks to participate in the economy there, to take a job, doesn't mean that your children should be cut off from their culture," he said.
Murkowski supports the rural preference guaranteed in federal law, she said. "When we look to those things that define Alaska Native peoples, subsistence is not just about a food source ... It is an identity."
McAdams followed up, asking Murkowski if she also supports a preference for Alaska Natives in addition to rural residents. Murkowski said there "should be an accommodation" for Natives who don't live in rural areas.
Alaska suicide rates are double the national average, moderator Andrea Gusty, a KTVA Channel 11 anchor, told the candidates.
What would they do to prevent more deaths in rural Alaska?
Murkowski said she convened a roundtable talk on youth suicide earlier this week in Bethel -- a gathering of lawmakers, health professionals and local leaders.
"This is exceptionally difficult, and it rips the heart out of our communities," Murkowski said. "But it's not just two times the national average. In some of our villages, in some parts of our state, it is six times the national average that we are seeing our youth give up hope."
Noting the link between substance abuse and suicide, Miller talked about the establishment of a drug court while he was a magistrate in Tok.
And while the issue is about more than economics, Miller said, "jobs is a big part of it.
"Families are strengthened through jobs. By punching that time card, having a purpose and going to work and going forward in life," he said.
McAdams, speaking last, said he agreed with his competitors on the need to grow economies and build local communities. He said schools also teach too narrow a curriculum because of federal mandates.
"One of the things that I think is critically important is that we have the opportunity to teach culture, language, local community values in our public schools," he said
Federal spending: What's next for Alaska?
A constitutionalist backed by tea party groups and endorsed by former Gov. Sarah Palin, Miller's message has been that the federal government is broken and needs an overhaul to avoid bankruptcy.
He has called for state control of Alaska resources in order to pay for services in the future.
"What we've had over the last several decades, sure it's been a blessing," Miller said of past federal spending. But to an extent it's also been a curse, he told the crowd, "because it bred dependency."
Asked Thursday for his plan to improve the lives of Alaska Natives and villagers, Miller replied "jobs, jobs and more jobs."
He said exploring new energy ideas like a proposal to build a nuclear power generator in the Yukon River village of Galena could spur resource development.
Alaska received more federal money per person than any other state in 2009, according to U.S. Census Bureau. Alaska politicians have long argued that the state needs the extra money because it's still building basic infrastructure -- a view McAdams and Murkowski shared at the forum.
"We need to continue to fight for every single appropriation, whether it be an earmark or an agency funding appropriation, to make sure that we as a matter of equal footing are able to have Washington, D.C. help us develop," McAdams said. "Otherwise, we won't have any economy at all."
As for improving living conditions for Alaska Natives, McAdams said he'd push to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to development and for the resulting federal royalties to pay into a permanent fund that would invest in renewable energy.
Murkowski, in response to a question about earmarks, said the state still needs infrastructure and that perhaps the cuts should begin in the Lower 48, not Alaska.
"To suggest somehow or another we're going to solve our problem with the deficit by elimination of earmarks is deceptive," she said. "You're talking about 1 percent of the discretionary budget."
Murkowski said she sought funding in the Senate for village infrastructure needs, such as millions for the Village Safe Water program that oversees construction of community plumbing projects.
"Many of our villages and many of our communities -- these are Third World conditions," Murkowski said. "We are starting with the basic infrastructure needs. Sanitation. Water. Sewer."
The Senate candidates are scheduled to face off again Monday at an Anchorage Chamber of Commerce luncheon.