5 Things to Know in Alaska Politics: Army Alaska, maritime economy and road naming | Politics | #alaska | #politics

Army Alaska will be reflagged as an airborne division to better reflect the mission focus and as a way to address the suicide rate among soldiers.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s legislation to advance the maritime economy is a step closer to becoming law.

And the Alaska Legislature passes a bill that lets the public donate to state projects renaming roads, bridges and highways to honor Alaska leaders.

There’s more news this week in “Five Things to Know.”

U.S. Army Alaska will be re-designated as the 11th Airborne Division to build a more cohesive team around its shared mission and identity, U.S. Army officials said this week.

The new 11th Airborne Division will become the nation’s third airborne division and second paratrooper division, according to the office of U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The current 1st Brigade Combat Team at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks and the 4th Brigade Combat Team at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage will be re-designated as the 1st and 2nd Brigade Combat Teams, according to Sullivan’s office.

Alaska soldiers are cold-weather troops with specialized training to carry out missions in extreme cold and austere environments.

A greater emphasis on Arctic strategy in every military branch puts more focus on Alaska, as thawing ice opens up sea routes and draws interest from Russia and China in deep-sea mining.

The new designation comes as suicides spiked among Alaska soldiers.

“One of the things we’ve found that we think is contributing to what we’ve found in Alaska is that some soldiers there don’t feel like they have a sense of identity or purpose around why they’re stationed there,” Army Secretary Christine Wormuth told the Senate Armed Services Committee this week.

“We’re not adding or subtracting force structure. It’s really sort of more of a new sense of common identity for the soldiers,” Wormuth said.

Sullivan had questioned Army leaders about efforts to address Army suicides in Alaska.

Wormuth testified that Army Alaska will be increasing behavioral health services, counselors and chaplains.

“That will be a six-month surge, and we will be doing 100% mental health checks of every U.S. Army Alaska soldier,” she said.

“You build a cohesive team around a mission, and you give them focus. You give them identity. That’s what brings them together, and that’s what we’re going to try to do,” Gen. James McConville testified.

“Conducting exercises in winter in a combat training-centered environment is extremely important, so [soldiers] develop the confidence and special type of training needed,” McConville said.

Murkowski pushes maritime economy

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s legislation to promote the maritime workforce and economy moved closer this week to becoming law.

Murkowski sponsored the Bolstering Long-Term Understanding and Exploration of the Great Lakes, Oceans, Bays and Estuaries Act, also called the BLUE GLOBE Act.

The legislation directs investments in innovation and technology in advancing Alaska’s fishing industry. 

“The BLUE GLOBE Act is one step closer to becoming law, which is great news for Alaska’s fisheries and coastal communities,” Murkowski said. “This legislation will improve the health of our fisheries, strengthen the competitiveness of the industry’s workforce, protect against China’s illegal fishing, and diversify our blue economy.”

Cannabis sales reap tax revenues

Most of the 11 U.S. states with legalized recreational marijuana are collecting more tax revenues from cannabis sales than they are from alcohol sales. But Alaska is not one of them.

Nationwide, total tax revenues on cannabis sales are close to $3 billion, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

In Alaska, revenues from state taxes collected on cannabis sales in 2021 topped $30 million, according to the Department of Revenue. That figure is expected to continue to rise.

States where recreational marijuana is legal include Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

Most of those states, other than Alaska and three others, collected more in state excise tax revenues from cannabis sales than from alcohol sales.

Alaska’s lower revenues were attributed to the state having a higher alcohol tax rate than most other states, according to findings from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

Sign of the times for commemorative names

The Alaska Legislature unanimously adopted a bill that lets the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities collect donations to support commemorative naming projects that span roads, bridges and buildings.

Senate Bill 168 lets the state department accept public contributions to support naming projects, which have relied entirely on state funding. The bill creates a process for collections from individuals and organizations.

Sen. Robert Myers, a North Pole Republican, sponsored the bill. “As legislators, we have the opportunity to honor individual Alaskans and groups who have contributed to our communities, state and nation,” Myers said.

Alaska pilots and contract negotiations

The Air Line Pilots Association reported Friday that contract negotiations stalled between Alaska Airlines and pilots.

The pilots union and the airline have failed to reach an agreement over pay and scheduling, according to the association.

Dozens of flight cancellations were reported Friday at Sea-Tac International Airport, including at Alaska Airlines. Alaska Airlines pointed to an ongoing pilot shortage in what the company described as a highly competitive environment.

Overall, the nation’s largest carriers expect to hire more than 10,000 pilots in 2022.

Alaska Airlines said in a prepared statement that it is working on increasing pilot recruitment and on understanding higher pilot attrition and absenteeism post-Covid.

“We’ll continue to do everything we can to minimize disruptions to the travel plans of our guests, but it will take some time to fully work through this challenge,” according to the statement.

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