Delegation divides over $1.3T omnibus spending bill
Alaska’s all-Republican congressional delegation was split during voting on the $1.3 trillion federal spending plan covering the remainder of the 2018 fiscal year.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski touted the omnibus appropriations bill in a press release as doing far more for Alaska than simply keeping the lights on in federal offices across the state.
“I am proud of the work we have done in this bill to empower Alaskans to build our economy and create safe and healthy communities. This bill provides Alaskans with much needed fiscal certainty, stability and opportunities for communities across our state,” Murkowski said. “It directs federal resources where they are needed, while blocking unreasonable regulations.”
Murkowski is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and chairs the Appropriations subcommittee covering the Interior Department, Environmental Protection Agency, the Forest Service and other environment-related agencies.
H.R. 1625 passed the House by a wide margin March 22 and garnered 65 affirming votes in the Senate March 23 and was then quickly signed by President Donald Trump to avoid another government shutdown despite the president’s criticism of the legislation and Congress for not having an associated deal on immigration issues.
Rep. Don Young also supported the appropriations package but Sen. Dan Sullivan did not.
Sullivan said his decision to vote against the legislation, which garnered strong bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress, was a particularly difficult one to make in a lengthy statement from his office because it contains several provisions he feels are important.
“While this legislation contains many critical spending priorities — necessary increases for our military and national security, safeguards for our schools and local communities, and investments to encourage job creation and economic growth — I could not in good conscience vote for it. Over 2,200 pages of legislative texts, hundreds, if not thousands, of pages of accompanying documents — all with huge implications for our economy and our citizens — deserves far more than 28 hours of review,” Sullivan explained.
“My commitment to Alaskans to give legislation, particularly something of this size and magnitude, the appropriate level of due diligence and attention simply could not be met under these circumstances.”
He went on to note the bill contains critical funding for the Secure Rural Schools and Denali Commission programs, as well as investments for rural public infrastructure and fighting addiction and mental health challenges, but said the hurried process that has become the norm in Congress was unacceptable.
“Sadly, this process was business as usual; an all-or-nothing deal, without a single opportunity for amendments or ample time for review. The Alaskan and American people deserve better. I’m committed to continuing work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to bring a more predictable and transparent budget process back to the U.S. Senate,” Sullivan added.
Last fall Sullivan voted in favor of legislation to repeal primary aspects of the Affordable Care Act and Murkowski, while generally against the ACA, cast a key vote to kill Republicans’ attempt to scrap the health care law. She cited a lack of normal process without committee hearings to flesh out the potential impacts of the repeal bill.
Specifically for Alaska, the bill provides $10 million to cleanup legacy exploration oil wells in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. The funding will cover remediation of nine of the remaining 26 wells in need of cleanup that were drilled between 1944 and 1982. It also directs the Bureau of Land Management to draft a strategy to complete the remaining work, according to Murkowski’s office.
It also funds the federal Payment In-Lieu of Taxes, or PILT, program with $530 million. That money is paid to local governments with significant chunks of federal lands within their boundaries that are exempt from traditional property taxes. It is a key source of revenue for many rural Alaska communities, particularly those in Southeast that are surrounded by the Tongass National Forest.
Local Interior Alaska officials should be pleased to know it also increases the funding to EPA for the agency’s Targeted Airshed Grants program to $40 million.
Bad winter air quality in the Fairbanks area often does not meet EPA standards so the local governments eligible for the Airshed Grants that are used to fund efforts — such as woodstove change-outs in the Interior — to improve air quality.
The competitive grant program had been funded with about $20 million in prior years and the Fairbanks North Star Borough had received about $2 million of that, so doubling the money available could offer more resources to the FNSB.
Major provisions to overhaul management of Alaska’s national forests that Murkowski included in her Interior Appropriations Subcommittee report last November did not make it in the final spending bill, but it does include money for federal foresters to partner with state agencies on forest inventories nationwide.
Murkowski had added language that would have exempted the Tongass and Chugach National forests — the two largest in the country — from the controversial Roadless Rule, which has limited logging and development in national forests for nearly 20 years.
Murkowski also attempted to scrap the Forest Service’s 2016 Tongass Management Plan, which calls for a quicker transition to strictly young-growth timber harvests in the forest than Southeast’s remaining loggers would like. Murkowski and Alaska timber industry representatives have said they are in favor of a gradual transition to second-growth only harvests, but the Tongass Plan limits available timber sales and further hurts the struggling industry.
Conservation and commercial fishing groups insist the Tongass should be managed for the growing tourism industry in the region and prioritize salmon habitat in the Tongass, which provides fishing-related employment. It is an evolution of the region’s economy that should be embraced, they contend.
Murkowski spokeswoman Karina Peterson wrote in an email that the senator will continue to work on gaining greater access to the forest’s resources for all stakeholders.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].