PUBLISHED: 5:36 PM on Wednesday, April 16, 2008
State leaders address native issues
Sen. Kookesh, Rep. Thomas speak at season's last Native Issues Forum
During the last Native Issues Forum of the season, Rep. Bill Thomas, R-District 5, and Sen. Albert Kookesh, D-District C, spoke about the projects in Southeast towns, such as the search and rescue boat in Kake.

"The last time a couple guys got lost out there at the transition, they tried to go out there with a boat that fish and game gave them that was a 18-foot Boston Whaler, and they barely got out of there," Thomas said. "So we're pretty pleased that we got the search and rescue boat back."

Naomi Judd photo
  Sen. Albert Kookesh, left, and Rep. Bill Thomas addressed community issues during the season's final Native Issues Forum held at the Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood halls on April 10.
After the government vetoed 63 percent of the budget last year, Thomas happily spoke of new funding acquired for Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood halls as well as previously vetoed water and sewer projects. About $1.5 million also was appropriated for an oil-response vessel for Kake.

"It's a 48-foot vessel and can do 28 knots and has several thousand feet of boom," Thomas said of the rescue boat. "The reason we did that is because Kake has all the cruise ships going by it."

Kookesh spoke on getting things done as a minority.

"The first eight years I was in the legislature I was in a minority... the only way we got anything in the past as a minority was to use the (three-quarters) there's a difference, nine democrats and six republicans formed a coalition and its been a wonderful experience...and now that I am a member of the majority we got the cost differential this year and put it into statute.

"We got 50 percent in this year and the rest will go through within the next three to four years," said Kookesh, which means rural Alaskan communities will get the extra funding they need for things like education and their VPSO (Village Public Safety Officer) program, as well as additional funding for Denali KidCare.

"This means, for example, if it costs $1 to educate a child in anchorage and it costs $1.25 to educate that same child in Tanana or Angoon, then we get the extra 25 cents. That's what the cost differential means and that's why its so important to us because we all know it costs more money to educate children in rural Alaska because of the high cost of electricity and fuel than it does in Anchorage, and Anchorage is considered the base."

Kookesh said his main focus is in getting funding for rural villages and expressed his gratitude for having Thomas on the finance committee. "He is really a bull dog in getting money for our villages and works really hard."

Kookesh noted another accomplishment as members of the majority is getting $400 billion for public citizens.

"We would have never got that as members of the minority," Kookesh said. "Again another thing is the (Village Public Safety Officers), which doesn't affect Juneau, but all the VPSO's will get a raise from $16 an hour to $21 an hour. And every village that has a VPSO will get an extra $1,000 a month to help offset the cost of that VPSO," he said.

The topics of rural energy concerns were also discussed. Thomas mentioned that he is striving to get people in rural communities off diesel use.

"We want to energize our communities," Thomas said. "But the cost of running diesel generators are so high."

Nearly $17 million was put in for the Hoonah Energy Tie this year, also $1.5 million went in for hydro in Tenakee and an unspecified amount for Elfin Cove.

"There are nine Alaska natives in the legislature now," Kookesh said. "We work really hard together and appreciate the support from our communities."