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Peltola says her priority is Alaskans’ economic prosperity

U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola visited Ketchikan April 3, 2024.
U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola visited Ketchikan April 3, 2024.

Alaska’s lone member of the U.S. House says her chief concern is the economy and how her constituents are faring in it.

Rep. Mary Peltola visited Ketchikan April 3, as she campaigns for her second full term in office. She sat down with KRBD’s Michael Fanelli to discuss some of the pressing issues facing Alaskans, ranging from housing to mental health to a changing climate.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Michael Fanelli (KRBD): First off, I want to ask about housing, a shared concern across Alaska, but especially here in Ketchikan. Prices have been soaring in recent years. I recently moved here, and it is very difficult to find — there’s very few rentals on the market at any price, let alone an affordable price. So I’m just curious what can be done at a federal level to help both housing affordability and availability in Alaska?

Mary Peltola: Well I think that across Alaska, I don’t think there’s a community that is an exception to very, very limited rentals, very limited market for buying homes. And we are very aware of how overcrowded homes are, how hard it is to find a place, how expensive like you say. And this isn’t unique to Alaska, but I think it’s exacerbated in Alaska. And I have really been working hard with folks at the Anchorage municipal level, letting them know that we can no longer at the federal level or state level expect municipalities to shoulder this burden alone.

We’ve got very, very high commodities right now. All of the commodities to build a home have really skyrocketed in price. The freight costs are much higher now. But there are programs at the federal level that I think that we need to revisit. Chief among them is NAHASDA, and that is a housing program for Native people. Most communities in Alaska qualify for the NAHASDA housing and have a regional housing authority in each region that shepherds that money and those projects. That has been underfunded and it has not been reauthorized for a very long time, so that is a priority for me. I think VA, the [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs], could be doing a much better job working with veterans to make sure that vets have housing. There are young people, such as yourself, who really need single unit homes or smaller homes, smaller apartments, smaller options, more affordable options. But this is just something that everybody is feeling very acutely right now.

KRBD: Opioid and other substance use addictions are a big problem here as they are throughout Alaska and the country. And a crucial part of addressing that, obviously, is having healthcare and mental healthcare resources. And I know that federal dollars exist to support that. What is holding us up from receiving more federal support for mental health?

Peltola: That is a good question. And that is not something I’ve focused on. And not that it’s not important, it is very important. I think across Alaska, we are short on providers, both for physical health and mental health.

So one of the positions — we’re a very small staff, but we are continuing to staff up. One of the positions that we are creating, because of the huge, generational funding packages that have come out of the 117th Congress, we have hired a grants coordinator, to help communities, to help different interest groups, look for and successfully achieve many of the federal grants that are out there. I think that most Alaskans know that grants are not very easy to compete for. You have to know a lot of the magic words. So we are very pleased to report that we have a new person in that position who’s well trained, well qualified to do that work.

KRBD: I want to talk about climate. You mentioned in that [address to the Alaska Legislature], you talked about houses sinking into the permafrost. There are entire villages in Western Alaska that need to be relocated because of erosion. Here in Southeast, we just saw a devastating landslide in Wrangle. And scientists are saying that the landslides are becoming more common because of climate change. So I’m curious what you are working on, what can be done to slow down the effects of climate change?

Peltola: Well, I think everyone is leaning into renewables, both in terms of it being a, renewables providing a cheaper form of energy for households, but also to reduce our larger carbon footprint. And as far as Alaskans are concerned, this will ultimately benefit us because we won’t be barging back in refined oil at very top dollar. And everyone, like you say, can see impacts within their own lifetime of weather changes. Our shoulder seasons of spring and fall are much longer. So this is a very real issue for Alaskans.

Fishermen, we can see that in our lifetime fish abundance has gone way down and certainly a contributor to that has to be the climate. Chinook salmon are on the downtrend. Across the state there isn’t a river that has abundant Chinook returns at this point. Reds are doing fantastic because reds do well when there’s a one or two degree temperature increase. So there are definitely signs that need to be taken seriously. And we are working on that. It is very important to me that we meet these goals of making sure we’re not raising our global temperature by too many degrees.

KRBD: I appreciate that answer, I’m glad you mentioned the fish, because another aspect of climate change is related to fish, which you’re really passionate about. You ran on that platform. And science has shown that warming water is a leading culprit in things like the snow crab crash and the king salmon on the Yukon and king salmon all over aren’t doing well, right.

Peltola: I also want to put a plug in for herring and herring eggs. This is herring egg season, and we’ve also seen a drastic downturn in the numbers of herring. And that’s a huge concern, especially in Southeast Alaska, but honestly, all over Alaska. I trade for herring eggs. A lot of people I know rely on herring eggs. There’s a dish called Eskimo salad and herring eggs is a huge, critical ingredient in that recipe. So how the herring is doing is really of importance to so many people across the state.

KRBD: Yeah, so you recognize all of these problems. And so I guess what I struggle to wrap my head around is, I think something a lot of Alaskans wrestle with. We live in this place that is full of so many wonderful natural resources. And at the same time, we are fiscally reliant on oil extraction, which is destroying those natural resources. So I’m curious how you reconcile those two things.

Peltola: So having served in the state legislature for 10 years, I’m very acutely aware of where our money comes from, and the obligations the state has to fund education, public safety and transportation. And around 80% of the budget that the state has comes from oil taxes. And we’ve seen that we’ve been in an economic slump for at least 11 years. Getting the Willow project approved and moving has already infused $2 billion into the Alaskan economy. And as Alaska’s sole congressman, it really is my job to care deeply about the economy. I think it is Congress’s job to care about the economy and how people are doing. Everybody needs a good paying job. Everybody’s got to put beans on the table. And in Alaska, the economic engine has been resource extraction. And we have not, in a fast enough way, come up with an alternative to this. And I think we’re all leaning into it, but one of the obstacles is a very cumbersome permitting process. It takes about 10 years for anything to be permitted in Alaska, whether that’s a renewable project, or a petroleum project. That is too long. I think that’s unreasonable to expect that there are going to be investors who can float a project through permitting for 10 years.

But we’ve got to have a system — if we’re really going to transition, if we’re really, you know, onto renewables, if we’re really going to transition away from petroleum, we have to do so much more than we’re doing. We don’t even have the workforce that we need to put in these new power systems and transmission lines and then maintain them. That’s actually the number one obstacle that we’re facing right now. And we are having conversations with labor and other trades, to figure out ways, pipelines to get young people into those careers. And that’s something that we’re very serious about. And we’re seeing more and more school districts certify young people before they even graduate, get various certifications, so they can go on to different fields. But having good paying livable wage jobs is so important in Alaska, because like you say, you’re just not going to make ends meet, if you have multiple part time jobs or jobs that aren’t accounting for the high cost of living here.

KRBD: Can I end on a lighter note? I’m curious how you’re liking the job. You’ve lamented the current state of Congress, you’ve called it the “do nothing Congress.” A lot of people are quitting, a lot of moderates are throwing in their hat. What is your take? Do you have hope for Congress moving forward?

Peltola: I do have hope, I am very hopeful. I think Americans and certainly Alaskans are ready for our elected officials to get to work and accomplish things and work together. I think we are leaning in that direction. I really enjoy working with both of our US senators. I have a good working relationship with our governor. So I feel that our statewide delegation works very, very well together, very collaboratively on everything, whether it’s Military Academy nominations, or appropriations or amicus brief letters. We work so well together. And it’s been a surprise, I mean, to me, and a couple other members, but it’s been really good. And I love working for Alaskans. I love meeting Alaskans and learning more about our state and working as hard as I possibly can in Washington, D.C., to explain how unique we are and just all the things we’ve got going in Alaska.

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