Republican U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, was in Juneau last month to deliver his annual update to the Alaska Legislature at the Capitol. While in town, Sullivan met with the Empire on Thursday, Feb. 21, for an exclusive interview. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. Here is the full transcript of the Empire’s interview with Sullivan:
Sullivan: I’m in town for the annual speech to the legislature, which I always enjoy. As I mentioned, I don’t know if you saw it, I appreciate you blogging on it, just a recap there, the message was on the big important issue the economy. We certainly think the policies we’ve enacted at the federal level … tax reform for a whole host of folks, families, businesses … regulatory reform, which is really huge for Alaska, both Congress and the Trump administration … and issues like unleashing energy for the country. We’re the largest producer of oil, gas and renewables in the world, which is pretty remarkable when you think about it, bigger than Saudi Arabia, bigger than Russia. And things like the defense buildup, these are having a really, really positive impact on the Lower 48 economy in terms of economic growth, it’s really strong. In terms of job growth, it’s through the roof if you saw for example the January jobs report number, 304,000 in one month. I mean that’s just very, very strong. Lowest unemployment rate in 50 years, wages finally going up, it’s taken 20 years. So my big point was OK, but we need to bring that here. That’s been probably my biggest focus since I’ve been in the Senate. For the reasons I laid out in the speech, we actually think, and I ask this all the time of business leaders, do you think we’re kind of starting to see the end. And not everybody, but I think that a lot of folks believe that, which is good. Because as you guys know, optimism is a force-multiplier as Colin Powell used to say. If you have a sense that things are turning around, business leaders will start to invest more, people will come back home. So I laid out the reasons why I thought that was the case. The energy renaissance on the North Slope’s clearly happening. I walked through all those numbers on why that’s the case. We want to make sure we have a strong Arctic National Wildlife Refuge lease sale, which again, won’t be immediate production but that’s a huge psychological hurdle that we’ve been dealing with in Alaska for a long time. The military, and importantly here in Southeast, the Coast Guard recapitalization and buildup is also very strong the last appropriations bill that was just signed last week by the President has a lot in it, which I know will be coming here. So there’s a lot happening here. And I also wanted to highlight there’s a lot of bipartisan work going on here in the Congress, you don’t read about it a lot, unfortunately, but it’s everything from the National Defense Authorization Act. That passed with like 86 senators. The Coast Guard bill that I authored passed with 94 senators. The Veteran’s Mission Act that (Rep.) Josh Revak, (R-Anchorage), asked me about, that passed with what 90 plus on that?
Empire Reporter Mollie Barnes: Do you think that these (sexual assault bills) will have kind of bipartisan support?
Sullivan: Well my POWER act passed very strong bipartisan, that’s the thing that’s kind of the precursor to this. It was signed into law by the president in September. So then I highlighted what I thought could be areas where we could build on this bipartisan cooperation, recognizing that to be perfectly blunt that the new House majority and the new speaker might take a look at undoing some of what I thought are key successes for Alaska, whether it’s tax reform, whether it’s significant military construction, whether it’s ANWR. I mean they’re already talking about holding hearings on rolling back ANWR in the House. Not going to happen. I mean, they’re going to hold the hearings, but the ability to get it done is not going to happen. So I mentioned that. We’re going to protect this, we’re going to protect it. Because it’s really important for the state. But in other areas, let’s work together on things that we’ve already worked together on. So I went through some of the health care issues, the big issue that I’ve talked to you guys a lot about, that I care very deeply about is opioids and addiction challenges in our state. The Save Our Seas Act, which I’m very, very excited about, which actually I would love it if you guys could write about that. We could send you the whole transcript. You rarely have alignment on a big environmental issue like that in D.C. that has Democrats, Republicans, the White House and industry all aligned. I just think it’s a big deal. Nobody wrote about it, even though it’s a big deal. Finally on this issue of the sexual assault and domestic violence. This is an issue I’ve been focused on literally for 10 years since I was Attorney General. In 2009 and 2010 we had a big statewide initiative that was increase penalties for perpetrators, public service announcements, more legal services for victims and survivors and getting the state really engaged and to recognize this problem. And then longer term work into changing the culture, right, which is what needs to happen. So I had a bill last year that was all about increasing pro bono domestic services for victims, which is what we did here when I was AG. That passed. So that’s signed into law, we’re going to start implementing it this year.
Empire Editor Emily Russo Miller: Is that different than the legal representation that you talked about?
Sullivan: Yeah, it’s different. It builds on it.
Miller: The legal representation, have any other states done that?
Miller: So we would be the first?
Sullivan: Well no, what I want to do is make it required federally. It’s a big idea, but it makes sense, because it’s a simple idea. Like I mentioned in my speech, the trigger on this would be if you’re a victim of a crime, so a rape, stalking, sexual assault. And the person, the perpetrator who is charged, gets a lawyer. *Snaps.* They get a lawyer under the 6th amendment. My legislation that we’re finalizing would trigger then to say OK, wait, what about the victim? How come doesn’t she get a lawyer? And get a lawyer for the victim. Now the benefit of that is she has legal counsel whether she can afford it or not, just like the perpetrator, or alleged perpetrator. And as I mentioned, and we can get you the studies, there are very powerful studies that show that one of the best ways to help survivors of domestic violence and domestic assault break out of the cycle is to get a lawyer. Because then, they’re empowered to say, get a protective order or boot the guy out of the house or get custody of the kids. And so, we did that when I was AG, we held these pro bono legal summits all over the state. We did a summit in Juneau to get people to step up and do that kind of work. We had over 100 attorneys in two years do the volunteer work so that amounts to tens of thousands of dollars of free legal service hours. But what we’re doing is we’ll take this a step further, we’re finalizing the legislation, it wouldn’t be a constitutional right like the defendant has. It would be a statutory right. And how you would fund that could be partially through federal grants. States would have to step up. You’d do a lot more on pro bono. So it would be a combination of that. And again, it’d be triggered by indictment of a crime. That’s the big idea. Then we had these other ideas here, a pilot program, which is kind of, I think interesting. A lot of the advocacy groups see this as one of their biggest problems, is to serve a protective order on somebody, it’s actually hard. You have to physically serve it. And estimates are that up to 50 percent of targets of these protective orders dodge them. So they never get served. So there’s never the protection that you would get from that. So we’re looking at a pilot project that could use electronic devices, so like text. You have to think through the legal ramifications and due process, that’s why it’s a pilot. But for the advocacy groups on domestic violence, this is one of their biggest goals. So that’s the other idea. And then the third, like I said is a national public awareness campaign. We did do that in Alaska if you remember in 2010 we ran these ads, “Real Alaska Men Choose Respect.” And we did public service announcements all over the state. And we would look at revamping that at a national level.
Miller: Where did that idea come from? To pick that up since it got dropped a few years ago under Walker?
Sullivan: It came from me, and my staff. To be honest, I was the one who spearheaded the first effort. When I was AG, it was Governor (Sean) Parnell and Commissioner Joe Masters, and the legislature. The first initiative in Alaska, I was the guy who spearheaded that with the governor. So a lot of those ideas we took from Alaska. Now look, you saw me, I don’t point fingers but you’re right, it was dropped over the last four years and I have no idea why. This should not for any reason at all be viewed as a partisan issue.
Miller: It was funding.
Sullivan: Yeah, I don’t know what it was. That’s why, I mean I didn’t really follow it, but that’s why I did encourage the legislature to pick it up. And I had a number of legislators after the speech said they were interested, so I think if we’re doing it at the fed level and the state reinforces it at the state level, it will be a good combo. And to be honest, Alaska’s an amazing place. We’re No. 1 in so many great categories, but you know we remain No. 1 in this horrendous category which is a blight on our state.
Barnes: Have you talked with other people in Congress about this legislation? Do you think it will be easy to pass?
Sullivan: Well right now, we’re working on it, and I don’t want to lay out who would be our cosponsors, but we’ve been working with a number of senators, Democrats and Republicans, on these ideas. We’re already putting this through Legislative Counsel, the lawyers to draft it. So I’d say pretty advanced stages of cosponsorships with this. Will it be easy to pass? I don’t know. My Power Act took two congresses to pass. But I had really good cosponsors, Heidi Heitkamp, the senator from North Dakota was my main cosponsor in the senate. Sen. (Lisa) Murkowski was of course a cosponsor. And then in the House was Joe Kennedy, who’s a Democrat, and Tulsi Gabbard, who’s a Democrat. Congressman (Don) Young was a cosponsor. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who’s a Republican. So we had a really strong bipartisan group. So I kind of anticipate we will be doing something similar. No I don’t anticipate, we will be doing something similar.
Miller: To hit on a few other topics, some of which didn’t make the speech, can we get an update with transboundary mining? That’s a big issue here. I think last we talked, we were asking what kind of pressure can you put on (the Canadian government)?
Sullivan: Look, it’s an issue that about a year ago at this time was when I traveled to Canada with Lt. Gov. (Byron) Mallott, and we had very high level meetings with I think five different cabinet members of (Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau’s. I’ve raised this with Trudeau in D.C. when he’s visited, but we went there. And the good news was if you remember that the Trump administration kind of got much more involved than Sec. John Kerry under President (Barack) Obama. So we had a lot more power and influence from the feds relative to the Trump administration vs. the Obama administration. And since that time we’ve had a number of follow up meetings with Canadian officials in D.C., like with the ambassador and some of the other Canadians who’ve come through, the Minister of Natural Resources and others. So we’re continuing to keep pressure on it. As a matter of fact, let me get back to you on this, because we wrote a letter, the delegation.
Barnes: I think I saw that letter.
Miller: There have been a few letters.
Sullivan: But I mean it’s more than letters. What we’re trying to do is keep the pressure on. And to be honest, when we’re in Canada, the Environmental Minister in particular, I don’t think they had a very good response. At one point she mentioned ANWR, opening ANWR, and I’m like what does this have to do with Tuslequah Chief Mine that’s spewing toxic waste into the Taku River outside of Juneau, nothing, so let’s not divert the discussion here.
Miller: I know that Lt. Gov. Mallott is no longer in the picture. Has someone else kind of stepped up in that way?
Sullivan: No, but I have good relations with Gov. (Mike) Dunleavy and Lt. Gov. (Kevin) Meyer. We’re continuing to press it, but let us get that to you more in detail.
Miller: Another Southeast issue, specifically, where do you stand on the Roadless Rule? And then a second question with that, they’ve been taking public testimony, 140,000 people submitted testimony about the Roadless Rule and the majority of them are support in keeping it in place.
Sullivan: Yeah, I’m not.
Miller: Can you elaborate a little bit more?
Sullivan: Well I just think that, and we pushed legislation for this, Sen. Murkowski and Congressman Young and I had an exemption for Southeast in the farm bill that made it in the House version, didn’t make it in the Senate version and it got dropped in conference, which was too bad. It was great work by Congressman Young. I just think that our resources, our access to our resources is too limited, too restrictive. You know the Tongass is the largest national forest in the country. And the ability to have some access via roads, I actually think it’s required by law. But it’s been in litigation for a long time. So we’re continuing to encourage the Trump administration to do this from an executive order standpoint. It would have been better to get it into law. But I think it would help some of the struggling communities. I was just outside talking to some folks about Secure Rural School Funding. I’m a huge proponent of that. As you know that was established in the Congress, because the Congress acknowledged that the federal government had decimated so many communities in Southeast that they’re having a difficult time with the tax base to pay for their public school education. I’d much rather have the economic activity and tax base for our Southeast communities to be able to fund their schools through vibrant timber sales and a timber economy vs. having to get the Secure Rural Schools Funding. But as long as we can’t do that, I’m going to be a huge advocate for Secure Rural Schools Funding. But I just think it’s a fairness issue so, yeah I would not. Were the 140,000 (people), were they Alaskans?
Miller: I think it’s available for anyone to comment.
Sullivan: Yeah I’d be surprised if it was 140,000 Alaskans. Look part of our challenge always, and it’s reflected in a little bit of what I was talking about with the new majority in the House, is you have a lot of people who don’t live here, who don’t care about our economic opportunities, who don’t care about our kids’ education, don’t care about the school base funding. And they just want to shut us down. You know I fight that really, really strongly because I don’t believe in it.
Miller: Do you think you support former governor Walker’s project of the natural gas pipeline? Do you think now that he’s not in office it should still be pursued?
Sullivan: Yeah, look, I’m mean I’m a huge proponent of resource development. I worked a lot on the gas line when I was Department of Natural Resources commissioner. There’s a lot of alignment with regard to the companies and the state and the buyers at the time. I never got the details of what Governor Walker was doing on that. You know I talked to him a lot. I’m not sure a lot of legislators had a lot of the details, which is problematic. I was a little skeptical of some of the salaries that were being paid out to some of the members who were doing it … you know, in the million dollar range, which is pretty remarkable to me. But we have an incredible resource in terms of natural gas, and I think it would be great if we could commercialize. Not just, certainly for Alaskan use, but for export. I’ve been pressing the Trump administration even in recent talks with cabinet officials when they go meet with the Chinese to make sure this is on their agenda. They have told me it is high on their agenda. That’s all positive, but the details in which the governor was negotiating it, you know equity stakes by Chinese companies, I was not aware of. Whenever I raised it with the governor and Chinese officials, I was in China last year, my view is, it would be great to sell clean burning Alaska natural gas to China. It would be great for the environment. It would be great for our economy. It would be good for our national security and our energy security. But there are two conditions that I thought were critical. A, and I mentioned this to the Chinese on a regular basis, we are not Nigeria. We are not West Africa. The Chinese, if you look at their record of resource development, is they go into countries and they bring 7,000 Chinese workers and they do all the work. And I’ve told them that won’t fly in Alaska or America. We will build whatever this is. And B, you should not anticipate this going solely to you. Our allies like Japan and Korea and Taiwan and Singapore should also be able to get clean burning Alaska natural gas. Other than that, if the governor or the companies can come together on reasonable terms that benefit Alaska, I would have no objection to that. As a matter of fact, I’ve tried to promote it with everybody from the president on down. And they’re certainly interested. But the details that Governor Walker negotiated are very opaque to me.
Miller: OK. Switching topics to the Green New Deal.
Sullivan: Green New Deal!
Miller: You do not support it, you mentioned it in the speech.
Sullivan: I am not a supporter.
Miller: But is there anything in there that you do think is a good idea?
Sullivan: Well look, the whole approach just, is kind of A, look I think we need to take it seriously. The last count I think close to 25 percent of the Democrats in the House, and I think in the Senate, we can get you the exact numbers, are cosponsors of it. OK. Cosponsors. But, to me it’s kind of this command-economy, socialism model that quite frankly, I fundamentally disagree with.
Miller: Have you had a chance to look at it?
Sullivan: I’ve looked at it, I haven’t read every word of it, but I’ve looked at a fair amount of it. And I look forward to debating it. Right now the plan is to bring it to the Senate floor and have a debate and vote on it. I just think there’s a bit of a naivety that exists with regard to the notion that somehow we’re going to put the government in charge of every aspect of American life. It’s a very top down command-economy approach to, not just the environment and energy, but to the entire U.S. economy. I think it would cost millions of jobs and certainly tens of thousands of jobs in Alaska, the affordability of it, say for example, to retrofit every house in America is very, very, skeptical. And look, with regard to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, I think that’s important. You look at what happened during the Obama administration. President Obama used to like to talk about how we reduced greenhouse gas emissions during his time office, that was true. But he never talks about the next step or the next sentence why that happened. Why did it happen? It was because of the revolution and the production of natural gas. That’s why it happened. Which, he was primarily opposed to. So what I think people are not thinking about, which is exciting, is the ability to combine for example renewables, wind, solar, hydro, and we have so much in terms of renewables here, with natural gas. To combine high tech, you know in Silicon Valley, with natural gas. This is starting to happen and it’s really, really exciting. Why is this? Because we have 200 to 300 years of natural gas supplies in this country, especially if you include Alaska. And we should be combining that with the best technology, whether it’s renewable technology, whether it’s for example fuel cell technology. And I think the sky’s the limit on a cleaner environment, but still combining the abundance of hydrocarbons that we have in this country to get to a cleaner atmosphere. But also not in a way that’s going to shut down the economy, or crush the Alaska economy in the future. So no, I’m not a supporter of the Green New Deal, did you gather that from my comments?
Miller: When was the last time you talked to the president and what was said?
Sullivan: So I don’t normally go into a lot of the discussions that I have with the president, but I talk to him on a regular basis. The one thing about the president that’s pretty remarkable is when you reach out and call him, he’s very receptive. He either takes your call, at least from me, or calls you back the same day. I think that’s pretty much always happened with him. Including, I was mentioning, I called him right before Thanksgiving on a couple of issues, and you know he wasn’t available. Then I was at dinner with my wife and three daughters in Outback Steakhouse in Anchorage, and we were getting ready to see the new Bohemian Rhapsody movie. It was 7:45 p.m. in Anchorage, and I get this phone call, unknown number, and I pick it up, and they said ‘Sen. Sullivan?’ And I said yes. And they said ‘This is the White House switchboard. I have the president on phone.’ So I was in Outback Steakhouse, but think about that, that was 11:45 p.m. in D.C., which is where he was.
Miller: What did he say?
Sullivan: He just said, ‘Hey Dan, I saw you called, what’s up?’
Barnes: You were at Outback Steakhouse on Thanksgiving?
Sullivan: No, no, this is the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.
Sullivan: That’s a good question. You looked shocked. I thought you were shocked about the Trump phone call. So I called him recently on a couple foreign policy issues, but also the issue, we had caught wind that the emergency declaration by the governor had been kind of, there was some bureaucratic obstacles in the Trump administration between certain agencies and it was kind of stuck. So I called him to ask him to respectfully take a look at it. And within like an hour we had several senior Trump administration officials calling us, so obviously he rattled some cages. And I think we got the declaration from the president out the next day. And then I was asked to go into a meeting with him and about six other senators, just to talk about some broader foreign policy issues relating to Syria and Afghanistan and NATO and Korea. So they’re good at reaching out. This morning I got a phone call to get briefed by senior Trump administration officials on these upcoming North Korean negotiations, so I just took that at my hotel here in Juneau. So he and his team reach out a lot. And I think that’s important.
Miller: Do you think he reaches out the Alaska senior Senator (Lisa Murkowski) in the same way? And do you think that’s maybe because … I mean, have you broken with party lines in your four years now?
Sullivan: Oh, I’ve voted against a number of things that they’ve wanted. I vote for things that I think my constituents want me to vote on and things that I campaigned on. Right? I think one thing the people want their elected leaders to do is not go out and campaign for a year and then go to Washington and be like, you know what, I was just kidding. That breeds cynicism. But with Senator Murkowski I have no idea, but I think she certainly talks to senior administration officials, cabinet officials, the president on a fairly regular basis. I think. I don’t go into the detail on that. For example we have lunches Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, the Republican senators together, a lot of times the administration or the president or the vice president comes. So, yeah, and you know Senator Murkowski and I work daily, hourly, almost. Our staffs work, I mean we’re very, very, very integrated in our approach to getting things done. Her lands bill for example is a really big success. Had a provision in there that I’ve been championing for four years, I think I’ve talked to you guys about that. The Alaska Native Allotment Act, for the Vietnam veterans who missed their chance. So hopefully the House passes that. We work very closely together. I mentioned this issue, you know I talked a lot about the military and Coast Guard buildup. What’s exciting about that from our perspective is we’re kind of a one-two punch. I’m on the authorizing committees, so armed services, we do the authorization of these big buildups. I’m on the commerce committee, I chair the Coast Guard subcommittee. We do the authorization on all that. She’s on the appropriations committee on these subcommittees that actually appropriate the funds that we’ve authorized. So that is a powerful combo, and that’s why you’re seeing a lot of that military Coast Guard investments in Alaska really spiking.
Miller: Gotcha. We had a question about Medicaid, do you want to take that one Mollie?
Barnes: Sure. I think you mentioned during your speech that you want to decrease the cost of health care, while still maintaining the aspect that we have really good doctors for oncology and stuff like that. So if you don’t support a Medicare for all system, what are —
Sullivan: Medicare for all.
Barnes: What changes do you think could be made to kind of meet in the middle to decrease those costs while still maintaining level of care?
Sullivan: Well look, I laid out a number of them in the speech. The transparency, the issue that relates to these new association arrangements, say for example with the Chamber of Commerce in Alaska with all the members. That’s working pretty dramatically in other states. We were the first state, I didn’t mention this in my speech here this year, but I mentioned it last year, we were the first state in the country that was able to get approval of a what’s called a section 1332 waiver under Obamacare. President Obama’s administration never granted those waivers to anybody. When the Trump administration came in, they granted it to Alaska. I was a very strong advocate in D.C. on getting the administration to advocate for that. That provided, if you remember, the state legislature did a really good job, they put together a pool in money up to about $60 million for super high cost conditions that cost a lot in terms of health care. And then the federal government came in and not only matched that, but put out I think it’s close to $300 million over five years to grant that waiver. And if you look at our individual market, it’s the first time in years that our premiums actually went down. They went down by double digits. One of the few states in the country where that happened. Now remember, that was after in increase of over 200 percent under Obamacare in the individual market. So we got rid of the individual mandate, which I actually think was really important because a lot of people didn’t write about it, but that was a regressive tax. That was a tax on Americans and Alaskans who were penalized for not buying something they couldn’t afford. The numbers are remarkable. Over 70 percent of the people who had to pay that tax in Alaska, it was about 21,000 Alaskans, it was seven million Americans, over 70 percent of them made $50,000 or less. So you’re taxing middle class, or low-middle class families, penalizing them because they couldn’t afford insurance that the federal government had made so expensive. That was a horrible policy that I’m glad we got rid of. So, I think there’s a really good opportunity on the drug cost, to bring those down with more transparency. And a large issue that I’ve been working on, and that we’ve had some success, but we need more providers up here. We need more doctors up here. That’s one of the reasons our health care costs are so high. Our health care costs structurally are always going to be high, higher than a lot of other states. But, I had a bill, and I talked about the Veterans Mission Act that passed a couple months ago, we had a provision in there for a pilot program that will essentially be an Alaska pilot program to have more residency programs in Alaska between the VA and Alaska Native health organizations, this will help bring doctors to Alaska. This is a bill of mine called the Enhancing Rural Health Care Providers Act. It got tucked into this broader bill. So that became law. So there’s a number of areas that I think we can work on, but medicare for all sounds good. When you actually say to people, oh would you like medicare for all, it polls at like plus 60 percent. When you tell people what it means, which is, that two-thirds of Alaskans and Americans that get private insurance, and are typically satisfied with it, the government will kick you off that private insurance and put you into a government run program. That’s not a policy that I would support and I don’t think most Alaskans would support it either. And the cost on that is estimated at $33 trillion. That’s trillion, with a t, over ten years.
Miller: The STATES bill, being called the most significant piece of marijuana-related legislation ever introduced in Congress. Do you support this bill and do you think pot should be legal at the federal level?
Sullivan: So on this, so you know we had our referendum in 2014, state referendum, I was running for office then, and even though it was a state referendum and I was running for federal government, I got asked about it a lot. I was not supportive. Well it passed with really strong numbers, it certainly got more votes than I did or Don Young or the governor. So my view on that was look, I’m a believer in the 10th amendment and constituents strongly supported a referendum, and I was going to try to be supportive of the federal elements that could help make this more, that you could execute it on. So I’ve worked on, there’s banking issues, there’s the prosecution issues, the so-called coal amendment. So we’ve been very focused, and actually part of a group of senators, which is an interesting group right, it’s (Cory) Gardner, it’s (Elizabeth) Warren, it’s some of the more libertarian senators who are strong believers in the 10th amendment. So actually I’ve been someone who’s been trying to help with legislation that can execute the people’s wishes, and in this case with Alaska it’s that. So yeah, I do support the elements of what’s in that bill. And we also put forward a bill on the Veterans Affairs side, a lot of, you know one of the big challenges on the opioid issue, you had a lot of these vets come home from Iraq, Afghanistan, they were suffering. And they really, really, got, and the VA even acknowledges this now, they got like hooked and pumped up with opioids and they got addicted. Horrendous that our VA was kind of inadvertently, they weren’t doing it on purpose, getting our veterans hooked on opioids. So a number of the vet communities, and I reach out to that community a lot, have said look are there ways that we can look at other alternatives, whether it’s chiropractic, whether it’s studying the effects of marijuana and different elements of that as an alternative to opioids. So it’s been something else I’ve been supportive of, as well.
• Contact reporter Mollie Barnes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 523-2228.