Questions fielded, tempers flare during constituency visit

PETERSBURG – Petersburg was paid a visit by longstanding United States Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) on Monday, part of a wider tour of Southeast that includes Ketchikan and Juneau.

Extra chairs had to be brought into the Borough Assembly chambers to accommodate the audience, and people stood at the room's back and sides. Seated front and center, Young explained the session would be an informal way for people to give input and ask questions.

"I'm here primarily to hear what's on your mind and what you'd like to discuss," he told the group.

After introducing himself, a number of topics were touched on during the afternoon meeting. Various audience members thanked the representative for his advocacy for reinstating the "returning worker" visa exemption that was withdrawn this year, preserving essential air service, returning funding for public broadcasting and increased Coast Guard spending.

Thanking Young for not supporting a recently attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act, one Petersburg business owner wanted an explanation. House Resolution 1628, the American Health Care Act, was put forward by Republicans late last month but failed to progress due to lack of support within the majority caucus.

"The reason I didn't vote for it – people are funny," Young began. "We voted twelve times to repeal Obamacare when Obama was in office, knowing he wouldn't sign it.

"Of course (President Donald) Trump was elected and he would sign it. And then we didn't have the appropriate replacement for it, because what was proposed – Alaska got the worst end of it all – it was worse than Obamacare. And they wanted to rush it through, because they wanted to pass it on the day of the anniversary of the passage of Obamacare. There was no thought put into it, they didn't really communicate with anybody."

Young said that sort of input from medical providers and patients was being sought out now, and expected that by July 4 a more amenable alternative should be reaching the House floor. Still, he admitted the finished product would not reflect his preferred approach.

"What I wanted is to have a total repeal, a one-paragraph repeal of Obamacare. But it wouldn't go into effect until 2020. Which would require us to write a bill in three years," Young explained. "That would bring the opposite side to the table and we would come to the table because there will be chaos if it is extinguished."

Still on the topic, one resident prefaced her follow-up question with the admission that she is currently undergoing chemotherapy. Specifically, she wanted to know why Young would not support House Bill 676, a bill put forward by Michigan Democrat Rep. John Conyers Jr. in January that would extend health coverage under the federal Medicare program to all residents of the United States. The bill has since been referred to committee.

"I don't really understand why you wouldn't want to expand Medicare," she told him, given Young's stated support for lower health care and pharmaceutical costs.

"Because that would be universal, government-owned medicine," he responded. "If you want that, go to Canada. I don't believe in that. I still believe in the private sector, I still believe in the marketplace." While not willing to support HR 1628, Young remained adamant that a better alternative was being worked out in Congress.

In another question, a resident addressed the "elephant in the room," as she put it, wanting to know why Young was pushing HR 232, a proposal which could transfer up to 2,000,000 acres of federal wilderness in the Tongass National Forest over to state management. Concerned about surrounding forest lands that could be affected by the transfer, earlier last week the Petersburg Assembly passed a resolution in opposition to the bill.

The questioner wanted to know what impact that would have on Secure Rural Schools money, a periodically reauthorized act through which the Forest Service disburses payments to states, primarily for education and roads. Since 2000, revenue sharing based on timber production was replaced with a guaranteed payment formula based in part on forested acreage.

In the 2015 fiscal year, Alaska received $9.8 million for 22.1 million acres of national forest land, at about 45 cents per acre. On the local level, for 1.8 million acres of Tongass acreage in the Petersburg Borough area, it received $577,742 or 32 cents per acre. Wrangell received $922,952 for its 1.6 million acres, at around 58 cents an acre.

Young defended his bill, saying it would free up land for development, something which is limited in Southeast.

"The only land you have are the communities themselves, there are no other lands. There's no opportunity to do other types of resource development, and you have to have resource development. And in time you will need it," he said.

Young also made clear that where the transferrable acreage would come from has yet to be decided, and that if communities want to opt out that would be possible.

"If Petersburg doesn't want it I don't really care, you ain't gonna get it. You'll be cut out," he said.

One of the claims Young made of the bill was that a reduction in Tongass lands would not impact the share of monies allotted to states' municipalities.

"You're not going to lose your rural school monies, if there are any monies," he added. "When I say 'if,' I think we're still going to maintain that," meaning Congress. "It's based on the total forest not available, not just one specific area. You have 17 million acres, if you remove 2 million acres you're still going to get rural school money."

Questioned further on his math, Young appeared irritated, and further exchanges with the audience brought an end to the topic.

"If you lose any money from that selection, I won't run again," Young finally said. "That's how confident I am that you're not losing any money."

The Forest Service was unwilling to comment on proposed legislation, but the SRS Act state payment calculation uses multiple factors, which includes acres of federal land within an eligible county, the county's share of the state's average of the three highest 25-percent and safety net payments during fiscal year 1968 through fiscal year 1999, and an income adjustment based on the per capita personal income for each county.

It was not the only time the conversation turned argumentative. It grew from heated to combative at several points, with the congressman sparring with audience members over actions such as House Joint Resolution 69, dubbed the "airplane hunting" bill by critics. He introduced the bill in February, which would reverse a Department of the Interior rule finalized last year relating to federal oversight of non-subsistence takings in National Wildlife Refuges. The bill passed the Senate on March 21 and was signed into law by Trump on April 3.

Young said criticisms mischaracterized the reversal, which it would allow hunters to, among other things, shoot or trap wolves in their dens with cubs or use airplanes to scout for bears. He said these issues were overblown, and did not reflect best practices. He characterized the matter less as one of hunting ethics as one of state's rights.

"We put the law back into the state's hands," Young explained. "If you don't like the state doing it then stop the state from doing it."

The session did not go as smoothly as perhaps intended, with tempers flaring on both sides of the microphone. By the end of the hour, an attempt to revisit the HR 232 land transfer issue was first pointedly ignored by Young, then cut short when the questioner interrupted the congressman mid-response.

"You're never going to agree with me, I don't agree with you. Just leave then though. I'm happy, you're unhappy, so I don't know what the problem is," Young told her.

Reminded by another audience member that the people in the room were still his constituents whether they agreed or not, he left off with a general challenge: "You have an opportunity, every two years you've got an opportunity, whatever you want to do. And I'll beat you every time." The hour being about up, with some concluding remarks and words of thanks that ended the session.


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