OPINION: Alaskans wise to focus on important issues for state, not political slams
February 17th | Carey Restino
While most would assume there is a bit of an uptick in interest in national politics given the current daily dramatic happenings in Washington, some questions remain about whether we in Alaska are paying attention to the right things. After all, there is so much flying around out there, it's hard to stay focused.
For example, the fact that Ivanka Trump's flower-painted 3-inch heels won't be on Nordstrom racks anymore? Not so important. Not too much use for those up here, anyway. We'll be OK. And while watching the clip of the U.S. president shaking hands with prime ministers and others in a manner that more resembles spastic arm-wrestling than anything else is simultaneously embarrassing and amusing, it's really not pertinent to our future. Even the roasting of the Education Department's misspelled tweets, while sadly funny, are pretty petty, even if the controversial new education secretary Betsy DeVos wrote them herself. Everyone has bad spelling days — take it from one who has read hundreds of poorly written letters from elected officials, leaders and even educators, not to mention one's own writing.
If entertainment is what you are after, paying attention to this minutia is fine. The memes are funny, the commentary hilarious, and we could all use a laugh or two right now. But be careful not to be distracted into thinking this is really important stuff. It's not. Here are a few things that are, even though they are not nearly as fun.
Issue No. 1 for Alaskans to follow: Health Care
Alaskans elected a governor in 2014 whose campaign focused strongly on the issue of health care. Until then, Alaskans had been largely shut out of many of the benefits that came with the Affordable Care Act, including subsidies that made the program a lot closer to affordable than it was before. Since then, Alaska has struggled with rising health insurance premiums that for some kept health care out of reach. But the state has fought hard to keep those costs from skyrocketing, and to date, nearly 20,000 Alaskans are signed up for healthcare insurance through the Affordable Care Act. Another 28,000 are covered through Medicaid expansion since Gov. Walker expanded that program in Sept. 2015. That's a lot of people who will be impacted by the promised roll-back of health care coverage.
We don't know at this point what the new administration has in mind for a follow-up plan to the Affordable Care Act, but leaving tens of thousands of Alaskans without coverage is hopefully not the plan. The Alaska Legislature is currently working on a proposal to mandate that healthcare providers list the prices of their top 25 procedures publicly, which may help offset the sky-high cost of getting even routine health care in Alaska. Given the fact that Alaskans reportedly are charged as much as 10 times as much for care in state than in Seattle, such transparency will probably result initially in a lot of travel to outside hospitals, but hopefully the law of supply and demand will eventually bring those fees down. In the meantime, being underinsured or uninsured in Alaska is a scary thing, both individually and in terms of our state's economic security, too. Remember, anything that impacts thousands of Alaskans will impact all of us, regardless of how great your insurance plan is.
Issue No. 2 for Alaskans to follow: Immigration
Immigrants also make up a large portion of the economic engine that drives Alaska's fishing industry, with thousands of immigrants coming to Alaska each year to work seasonal and temporary jobs. Some 300 workers were brought in on H-2B visas in 2013 for jobs in hotels and other hospitality services. While the immediate response to that news might be that immigrants are taking jobs that Alaskans need, studies have show that these workers support a larger industry that creates thousands of jobs for the non-immigrant population. The bottom line is that tougher immigration laws and restrictions on immigrant labor will impact industries throughout the state, especially those who depend on seasonal and temporary jobs most Americans have no interest in.
Issue No. 3 for Alaskans to
follow: Development of resources and climate change
Regardless of your stance on development in the Arctic, in the watershed of word-class fisheries or really anywhere in the state, Alaskans love the land on which they live and don't want to see it tarnished by environmental disasters. Defining what "responsible development" looks like is hardly easy, and it should rely first and foremost on science, a sector that, thus far, does not appear to be popular among the new administration. While Alaskans may feel less than warm and fuzzy about federal involvement in state development, having a layer of oversight can be a huge boon, as Alaska saw in the largely unpopular Pebble Mine proposal. Given the remote location of a lot of Alaska's development, having projects move forward with little oversight is a recipe for disaster in Alaska, disaster that could trade one resource for another, like we saw in the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Perhaps the biggest disaster, however, is climate change. If Alaskans thought it was hard to get attention up in the far north for climate change-related erosion and so forth, one has to wonder how an administration that rejects the concept will aid our many eroding communities. Time will tell, but unfortunately, much of Alaska does not have a lot of that commodity.
Issue No. 4 for Alaskans to follow: International relations with countries we can see or almost see
Do you know who should be most concerned about the relationship between the current administration and Russia? Alaskans have the most to lose in an equation where Russia and the United States are entwined, and U.S. interests are compromised in the name of politics. There is a battle over regions of the Arctic, shipping traffic, fishing resources and a multitude of other issues in which a diminishment of U.S. interests would be a hit for Alaskans while the rest of the country would be largely unscathed. And let's not even mention North Korea.
Alaskans have always been the underdogs in a race to get recognition for our unique position in making the United States an Arctic state. We must now be the guardians of those interests and make sure that Alaska's future prosperity doesn't get traded away. Or worse.
There are many more happenings at a federal level that need careful attention, and they don't have anything to do with fake tanner or small-hand jokes. As the happenings in Washington unfold, Alaska must stay vigilant in watching that our interests, many of which are unique in the nation, do not get swept under the White House rug. The only way to do that is to stay focused on what is important, and let the petty stuff go. Yes. Even the hair.