Mike Dingman: Begich could use a little of Nageak's fire to open ANWR

Mike Dingman

In past week we witnessed a tale of two Democrats.

The first of the two is the only legislator born in ANWR. Clad with a polar bear claw necklace, Rep. Ben Nageak of Barrow laid out the case against those that claim to be trying to help him.

Rep. Nageak, speaking about federal restrictions closing ANWR on Thursday, said, "They think they're helping us and helping the environment and our animals; they are not".

He continued "Get off your high horse and say go ahead and do it there where it's a limited area." He compared the size of the area to be drilled as the size of Reagan National Airport.

His heartfelt speech continued, "I don't like it when people say you can't do it, my cousins, my uncles they live there all the time. . . they can't even use the gas that's in their land, think about that, when that high cost of energy and everything happening, our people can't even advance themselves when they have the resource right there."

"Think about those things when you start talking about, 'you can't do this or that,' think about them, it has consequences."

On Monday the bully pulpit belonged to U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, Alaska's junior senator and our lone Democrat in Washington, D.C.

His sharpest remarks were on education.

Education is a hot topic in the Alaska State Legislature this year. There are a number of issues that are very important. There is a proposal to increase the base student allocation (BSA) as well as a proposal to change the Alaska Constitution to allow a voucher system that would include private religious schools.

Begich blasted members of both houses in front of the joint session that was assembled to hear him speak.

"Public dollars are for public schools, period."

He said that some look at reform as good and that the Legislature should always be looking forward in terms of education, but that they shouldn't throw out the whole system.

"It's like you've built a fire in the woodstove, but refused to add enough wood. Now some are complaining the stove doesn't work and we need a brand-new heating system, I know, some of you will say there's been enough wood for the fire. That the state education budget has actually increased. The question is: Has it kept enough pace to allow school districts to keep up, to actually do their jobs?"

Two different Democrats -- two completely different priorities in their speeches made this week.

Rep. Nageak has it right. He hit on the most important issue Alaska is facing -- declining oil revenue due to a decline in production. Regardless of where you come down on the oil tax structure -- a position Sen. Begich refused to take in a press availability after his speech -- the fact that we aren't sending enough oil down the pipeline is our overriding problem.

When Begich ran against Sen. Ted Stevens in 2008 he told Alaska that being a Democrat, he could convince his peers that opening ANWR would be good for Alaska and good for the nation. Almost six years later, he has failed. We are no closer to opening ANWR to oil exploration than we were before he got there.

In 2012, the U.S. House passed a transportation bill that included a provision to allow drilling in ANWR. The House vote was 237-187 and 21 Democrats voted for the bill with the ANWR provision. When it made it to the Senate, the stage was set for Begich to come through on his promise. The time was right for Begich to work from within the party to convince Democrats to vote in favor of ANWR.

He failed.

Democrats voted quickly to remove the provision -- only three Democrats voted in favor of ANWR -- including Sen. Begich.

The truth is Alaska's education system does need to be funded better and Alaska's teachers do deserve to be paid better -- a lot better.

However, given the senator's failure to get ANWR oil flowing down the Alyeska Pipeline, it's disingenuous to walk in and criticize Alaska's state legislators for trying to do the best that they can with what they have.

When Rep. Nageak finished his speech on Thursday he said "Nobody's here to muzzle me and nobody ever will." We could use that kind of fire for opening up ANWR from our U.S. senator who is on the inside of the Democrat machine.

Mike Dingman is a fifth-generation Alaskan born and raised in Anchorage. He is a former UAA student body president and has worked, studied and volunteered in Alaska politics since the late '90s. Email, michaeldingman@gci.net.


Mike Dingman