Bypass Mail Targeted in US House Legislation

Alaska’s bypass mail subsidy is being targeted by a California lawmaker looking to trim costs and generate more revenue for the financially ailing U.S. Postal Service. Republican Congressman Darrell Issa the chairman of the House committee on Oversight and Government Reform is a primary sponsor of legislation called the Postal Reform Act of 2011. Within the legislation, section 408 would require the state of Alaska to reimburse the Postal Service for the cost of bypass mail. Congressman Issa was not available for comment today but Alaska district Postal Service spokesman Ernie Swanson says the subsidy costs USPS at least $70 million a year.

“That’s the amount that we lose basically on it. It undoubtedly costs us more than that, I know the representative was citing a number of about a hundred million dollars and that may be close to the total cost that it is to the postal service,” Swanson said.

Bypass mail is unique to Alaska and was put into place years ago through the efforts of the late Senator Ted Stevens. The Postal Service contracts with private carriers to fly mail to off road communities. Without it the price of everyday items would be cost prohibitive.

“Bread, milk, food, that sort of thing. It’s already expensive of course, but if the bypass mail system wasn’t subsidized it would be outrageously expensive and I can’t tell you if it would be 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 percent more but it would be significantly more than even the high price they pay now,” Swanson said.

Swanson says USPS takes no position on legislation designed to help them stop hemorrhaging billions of dollars, but he says recent measures the agency has taken to trim costs has gotten the attention of Congress and Issa’s proposal is one of several pieces of legislation being proposed to aid that effort. Swanson says USPS lost $8.5 billion last year and at the close of the fiscal year next week, he says they’re projecting $9-10 billion in losses for 2011.

“The amount of revenue we might possibly receive from the state of Alaska if this legislation were ever passed would just be a small, small portion of the losses we’re experiencing.”

Senator Lisa Murkowski sent a flurry of letters against the measure Thursday. One asks senators on the Homeland Security and Government Oversight Committee to oppose the legislation. Another went to the Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe asking him to affirm that he will preserve the bypass mail program. And Murkowski sent a third letter to Senator Daniel Akaka requesting a hearing of Senate Indian Affairs, saying that remote Native communities where often no internet is available would be harmed by the effort. Murkowski wrote that congress must not abandon the principle of ‘universal service at universal rates.’

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Lori Townsend is the News Director for the Alaska Public Radio Network. She got her start in broadcasting at the age of 11 as the park announcer of the fast pitch baseball games in Deer Park, Wisconsin. She has worked in print and broadcast journalism for more than 24 years. She was the co-founder and former Editor of Northern Aspects, a magazine featuring northern Wisconsin writers and artists. She worked for 7 years at tribal station WOJB on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibway Reservation in Wisconsin, first as an on-air programmer and special projects producer and eventually News Director. In 1997 she co-hosted a continuing Saturday afternoon public affairs talk program on station KSTP in St. Paul, Minnesota. Radio brought her to Alaska where she worked as a broadcast trainer for Native fellowship students at Koahnic Broadcasting. Following her work there, she helped co-found the non-profit broadcast company Native Voice Communications. NVC created the award-winning Independent Native News as well as producing many other documentaries and productions. Townsend was NVC’s technical trainer and assistant producer of INN. Through her freelance work, she has produced news and feature stories nationally and internationally for Independent Native News, National Native News, NPR , Pacifica, Monitor Radio, Radio Netherlands and AIROS. Her print work and interviews have been published in News from Indian Country, Yakama Nation Review and other publications. Ms. Townsend has also worked as a broadcast trainer for the Native American Journalist’s Association and with NPR’s Doug Mitchell and as a freelance editor. Townsend is the recipient of numerous awards for her work from the Alaska Press Club, the Native American Journalists Association and a gold and a silver reel award from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. Townsend was the recipient of a Fellowship at the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting in Rhode Island as well as a fellowship at the Knight Digital Media Center in Berkeley. She is an avid reader, a rabid gardener and counts water skiing, training horses, diving and a welding certification among her past and current interests. ltownsend (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  907.550.8452 | About Lori