U.S. Sen. Mark Begich talks with Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center residents Lola Norris (center) and Vonnie Kelly following a "coffee hour" discussion the senator held on Feb. 22 at the center.
STAR PHOTO by Matt Tunseth
U.S. Sen. Mark Begich got a much warmer welcome than he was expecting when he visited the Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center on Feb. 22.
"I remember when I was mayor, this group was a lot tougher," Begich said during a public "coffee hour" discussion at the center. "But I'm not in charge of snowplowing anymore."
Begich covered a wide range of non snow-related topics during his stop in Chugiak on his way back to Washington, D.C., including the nation's ballooning budget deficit and why he's opposed to privatizing Social Security.
Alaska's lone Democrat in Congress told his audience that he doesn't believe "Wall Streeters" can better manage the federal retirement and benefits program better than the government, and that the idea is simply a money grab by those who seek to cash in on the fund.
"There's no reason why they should privatize," he said.
The former Anchorage mayor also unveiled a new Web site feature on his congressional home page that he hopes will allow Alaskans to help solve the nation's fiscal problems. By visiting the senator's site (www.begich.senate.gov), people can submit ideas that Begich hopes will lead to innovative new ideas for balancing the budget.
"Knowing Alaskans, I'm not worried about people giving me ideas," Begich said.
The senator told the seniors that he believes the key to solving the deficit is by bringing in new ideas and innovations from the private sector.
"It's the only way we're going to solve this," he said.
Begich also took time to answer questions from the crowd, including one which asked if he thinks unrest in the Middle East and North Africa will give Alaska a better chance to open oil fields that are currently off limits to development.
Though he was cautious not to paint the unrest as leverage to immediately push for opening the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain, Begich did say that unstable oil supplies in the region might make Alaska's fields more attractive to development.
"It's actually an opportunity for us that we did not have two weeks ago," he said.
Senior center residents Lola Norris and Vonnie Kelly attended Begich's vist, and both women came away impressed with the senator's stance on keeping Social Security out of private hands.
"If they could do away with Social Security, I'm sure they would try," Kelly said.
Norris said many of the center's residents are dependent on the federal program.
"A lot of people are living off their Social Security," she said. "That's all they have."
Both women said they were gratified that the senator took time out of his schedule to fill in the area's seniors on what's happening in Washington.
"I thought it was fantastic," Norris said.
Contact Matt Tunseth at firstname.lastname@example.org or 694-2727 Ext. 215.
This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, February 23, 2011.