Stedman: Rural Voices Softer In New Legislature

State Sen. Bert Stedman says rural Alaska’s voice will be diminished in the upcoming Legislative session. The Sitka Republican lost his position as co-chair of the powerful Senate Finance committee when the Republican majority picked its new leaders for the 2013.

It could also have a big impact in Stedman’s hometown of Sitka.

Stedman became chairman of the Senate Finance committee back in 2007. And his campaign for re-election was built around his financial know-how, and the influence he wielded in that post.

Stedman isn’t certain whether he’ll still have a seat on Senate Finance.

“You can ask for anything you want. You can ask for the moon if you want to,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you’re going to get it.”

But he is certain that rural Alaska – especially coastal communities – will have less of a voice in the next session.

Stedman says Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley will have legislative power for foreseeable future. He says that could mean continuing efforts to move the Capitol north. But the biggest effect, Stedman says, is that Southeast and rural leaders will need to work harder to be heard.

“So we need to work with the Rail Belt legislators and make sure our needs are addressed along with theirs,” Stedman said. “But when Anchorage and Fairbanks come together and want something, there’s enough elected officials from those two regions and Mat-Su that they can pretty much do whatever they want.”

The new Senate Majority lists affordable energy for Alaskans as one of its priorities for 2013. Stedman says that probably means a focus on Fairbanks.

Sitka, meanwhile, has asked the state for $43 million to help expand the Blue Lake Dam.

“I think the chance of having a $40 million appropriation is zero,” he said. “A $30 (million) and $20 (million appropriation) are zero. And you get down to the $10 (million) range and I’m not sure that’s even doable.”

Stedman says the likely alternative is for communities like Sitka – with huge capital funding requests – to ask for less money over multiple years.

Under the new Senate Majority, Stedman will be chairman of the Health and Social Services committee.

“I’ve probably dealt with that area the least, and it is one of the biggest budgetary items – a couple billion dollars in operating budget,” he said. “There are a lot of embedded problems in it, or challenges, I guess.”

It’s a big change for Stedman. Would he rather be working on financial issues? He says yes. But he also says he’s not disappointed by the change.

“You’ve got to remember: Six years is a state record as co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee,” Stedman said. “The last guy that was from Southeast that co-chaired that committee was Bill Ray in the early 1970s. Before that you had to go back to Howard Bradshaw.”

Ray was from Juneau, and served in the Senate from 1971 to 1986. and Bradshaw was a Democrat from Sitka who served in from 1959 until 1964.