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Politics

Gubernatorial Candidate Begich Vows To Protect Permanent Fund Dividend, Supports Donlin Mine

Mark Begich knows he needs the votes from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta to win a tough, three-way battle for the governor's seat in November.
Courtesy of Mark Begich
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Mark Begich knows that he's facing a tough political battle in November for the governor's seat. And that he needs the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta’s help to win it.

"I know one thing about the Y-K Delta is that they’ll hold me accountable," he said." 

Begich, a former United States Senator and former Mayor of Anchorage, is running unopposed in the Democratic primary. He will face Governor Bill Walker, running independently, and the winner of the Republican primary in a three-way fight in which every vote could be important, which means that Begich needs votes from the Y-K Delta.

Among the things he is promising is to protect the Permanent Fund Dividend. For the past three years the Permanent Fund Dividend has been reduced, but that money stayed in the Fund's Earnings Reserve Account. That changed this year when, for the first time ever, lawmakers took money from that account to pay for state government. 

Begich says that the Alaska Legislature has set a dangerous precedent. He advocates protecting future dividends with a constitutional amendment, but only the legislature has the power to do that. So how would Begich persuade lawmakers?

"I think I’m going to make it politically hard for members to say no," Begich said. 

Begich would put part of the earnings reserve out of reach in the fund itself. He would use half of the remainder to fund dividends each year, and the other half to fund public education. As for education reform, count Begich among those who want to put more of a priority on training students for the existing job market. For the Y-K Delta, some of those jobs will open up if the proposed Donlin mine actually starts mining. It would be one of the biggest gold mines in the world, and promises thousands of jobs at its peak construction period before it starts mining for Alaska’s most impoverished region. Donlin says it would mean roughly 1,000 jobs annually for its mining operations. 

But lately, some tribes are speaking out against the mine. They fear it will destroy the subsistence lifestyle practiced by many in the region, which hasn’t gone unnoticed by Begich, a long-time supporter of Donlin.

"This in the last six months has become a bigger issue in the sense of community engagement," Begich said. "I still support it, but I want to hear what people have to say."

Many community members voiced their concerns about the Donlin Gold project at a meeting with Begich on Tuesday night. And one big roadblock for Donlin could be through a controversial ballot initiative.

Begich says that the courts still might rule that Ballot Measure 1 does not qualify for the ballot, but beyond that he's pretty tight-lipped on his views about Stand For Salmon. He does favor the legislature dealing with the issue behind it and revising Title 16, the rule that gives the state the right to protect fish habitat. 

"You think if you have a law pre-statehood, you might want to revise it maybe once," said Begich.

Begich also plans to make sure that there are more rural Alaskans on key state agency boards, especially ones that deal with fish habitats.

"If they differ with you on policy that’s okay, but you want to get that cross section of ideas and representation," Begich said. 

Finally, Begich also plans to continue Gov. Walker’s efforts in collaborating with tribes to strengthen public safety and tackle substance abuse, especially alcohol. He says that he'll go a step further in deploying more state resources to tackle the issue as well, instead of relying just on disaster declarations and federal funding.