Peter Segall | Juneau Empire                                Senate President Cathy Giessel points to a map showing the growth in life expectancy in the U.S. on Feb. 5.                                Senate President Cathy Giessel points to a map showing the growth in life expectancy in the U.S. on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

Peter Segall | Juneau Empire Senate President Cathy Giessel points to a map showing the growth in life expectancy in the U.S. on Feb. 5. Senate President Cathy Giessel points to a map showing the growth in life expectancy in the U.S. on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

Resource development made Alaska: An interview with Senate President Cathy Giessel

Alaska’s resources brought health care to the state

As a young woman born in the territory of Alaska, Catherine Bohms, now Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, saw what life was like in a rural setting.

“I remember those years before we became a state,” she told the Empire in an interview. “My father was a pilot and he served mostly north of Fairbanks, and I got to ride along with him often on his flights.”

Her father flew for Wien Air Alaska, the state’s first airline, working mostly north of Fairbanks where Giessel was born and raised. She traveled with her father around the interior of Alaska in the 1960s, when there was little to no infrastructure.

“I saw what a pure subsistence lifestyle was like in our small remote villages. There was no contact, no cellphones. Really, it was a very poor, hard, hard life,” she said.

Giessel pursued nursing, eventually becoming a registered nurse and advanced nurse practitioner, credentials which she still holds and continues to maintain today. Recently, she worked to accrue hours in order to renew her license, she told the Empire.

After high school, she worked as an intern for Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, in Washington, D.C.

Stevens, she said, was deeply concerned with health care, and she believes she was chosen for the internship because of her pursuit of nursing.

“I went along with him to some of these villages in 1970 and they had no clinics. Ted Stevens changed that,” she said. “He got clinics in our remote villages. He got funding from the Centers for Disease Control for universal vaccine program here in the state of Alaska that began to eradicate vaccine-preventable disease.”

As a nurse, Giessel said, she’s concerned with wellness, with people being healthy. When she joined the Legislature in 2010, her colleagues wanted to put her on the health committee because “you’re a nurse,” she said, with just a touch of annoyance.

But while her concerns did revolve around health, that’s not where she wanted to focus her energy. Resources were what she wanted to work with.

“I’m concerned about wellness and when people have good jobs they tend to be healthier,” she said. “They tend to have good sleep habits, they tend to avoid over-consumption of substances that could cause addiction.”

Resources development changed the face of Alaska, according to Giessel. It allowed the state to blossom and increased the wellness of the state overall. During the interview in her office at the State Capitol, she pulled a map produced by the Journal of the American Medical Association off the shelf which showed the increase in life expectancy in the U.S. from 1980 to 2014.

Peter Segall | Juneau Empire                                Senate President Cathy Giessel points to a map showing the growth in life expectancy in the U.S. on Feb. 5.                                Senate President Cathy Giessel points to a map showing the growth in life expectancy in the U.S. on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

Peter Segall | Juneau Empire Senate President Cathy Giessel points to a map showing the growth in life expectancy in the U.S. on Feb. 5. Senate President Cathy Giessel points to a map showing the growth in life expectancy in the U.S. on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

“Look at the state of Alaska. What was going on in Alaska in these years? In 1979, 1980 about, was when Trans-Alaska Pipeline began pumping oil,” she said. “In other words, the North Slope began to be developed.”

The pipeline was actually completed in 1977, but her point was that the revenue from resource development allowed the state to introduce programs that vastly improved the health of its citizens.

“This is what resource development does for human health,” she said. “The attributes that the authors found that contributes to this increase in health, were access to education, health care, jobs, clean water, wastewater treatment. All those things happened in this time.”

While her legislative history does show a number of bills concerned with public health, those programs are possible because of the state’s commitment to resource development, she said.

“That’s why I chaired the resource committee in the Senate for six years. I was the second-longest chairperson in Senate Resources’ (history).”

She became Senate President in 2019 and in that time has overseen a fairly contentious body. That same year Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced massive cuts to the state budget while at the same time promising to pay a permanent fund dividend of approximately $3,000.

Several lawmakers stood by the governor’s approach and the fight over the size of the PFD took the Legislature into special session last summer. At the beginning of this year’s session, those senators who voted for a full PFD were stripped of their committee assignments on the Legislature’s first day back in Juneau.

The state is faced with a similar dilemma this year, as the governor’s budget again calls for a full PFD, which would draw the state’s Constitutional Budget Reserve account down to roughly $500 million.

Giessel and other senate leaders have been emphatic so far this session that such a large dividend was not fiscally responsible and that a majority of Alaskans would prefer to have state services over a full PFD.

Dunleavy has maintained that any reduction of the PFD should be done through a constitutional amendment and a vote of the people.

The senators stripped of their appointments claimed they were being retaliated against for voting their consciences on the PFD. It’s not yet clear what this year’s budget will look like, or how the governor’s veto-proof minority in the Legislature will react to a lower PFD.

Giessel has said she believes growing the permanent fund should be a priority, and that drawing down state savings in order to hand out a check doesn’t make sense.

We can pass a balanced budget right now with a reasonable dividend and not have to deplete our savings. It’s logical. It’s math,” she said. “We want to preserve the Permanent Fund Dividend program, but we don’t want to deplete the fund itself.”

She does believe in a spending cap for the state, she said, but that wasn’t necessary right now because the state has so little money to spend. But with a responsible budget and a focus on resource development, the permanent fund can be grown to the point where its earnings alone could pay for state services.

That would take about 20 years to accomplish, she said, based on estimates of the fund’s current returns, but in the end, it would allow the state to not have to rely on other income sources. But resource development is still part of Giessel’s vision for the state. Getting people into good jobs with health care can be accomplished in part by the expansion of resource development, she said.

Without resources, she said, “Congress would never have agreed to allow this poor, remote, cold place to become a state. So that’s the history of Alaska.”

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