Murkowski: Spending bill funds ‘Alaska priorities’

The U.S. Senate passed an omnibus appropriations bill May 4 in a vote of 79-18 that funds major Alaska programs for the remainder of fiscal year 2017 — a save from the chopping block for threatened line items such as Essential Air Service, the Denali Commission and energy assistance grants.

The legislation, now on its way to President Donald Trump’s desk, prevents a feared and much-discussed possible government shutdown. But that was never an option in her mind, said Sen. Lisa Murkowski in a May 4 morning press conference with the Alaska media.

When asked about Trump’s tweet that ““Our country needs a good ‘shutdown’ in September to fix (sic) mess,” Murkowski said it’s not at all well-thought out. America wastes money when it shuts down government and taxpayers pay the bill.

“I think you need to look very critically at the few times we did shut things down. It’s not saving money. It’s not being responsible,” she said. “As a Congress we are the ones who set the spending bills and we do what our constituents tell us. I’ve never been in the shutdown camp.”

The vote of 79-18 in passing the bill showed a good margin, Murkowski said. Despite numerous obstacles caused by stalls and politics, “we passed it and the president will now sign it into law and we will be able to say we kept the government running.”

The bill funds the federal government through Sept. 30

Because Alaska is in the midst of a fiscal crisis, Murkowski believes the fiscal year 2017 budget infusion will provide a much-needed boost to the economy.

“The bill provides new investments for our military, increased funding for fighting wildfires, and it will help Alaskans who grapple with some of the highest heating costs in the nation,” Murkowski said. “This bill empowers Alaskans to strengthen our economy and create safe and healthy communities at a time when we need it most.”

Among the budgeted items funding for an active duty force of 476,000 at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and firefighting grants in preparation for the wildfire season ahead. An 11-page summary provided by Murkowski details broad categories for spending.

Here are some Alaska highlights:

• Defense: A $4.8 billion national Air Force appropriation includes funding for F-35A aircraft. It also funds an active duty structure of 476,000, which reverses the downward trend in active duty and enables the retention of the 4-25 Airborne Brigade at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

It includes $968 million for sustainment of the ground-based missile defense facilities at Fort Greely and in California. Funded also is $170.1 million to support the design and procurement of new radar equipment at Clear Air Force Station.

It also provides $150 million for the Navy to procure materials needed for construction of a polar icebreaker and $10 million through the Air Force for state-operated launch facilities that contribute to national security, including the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Kodiak.

Communities: The bill fully funds the Payment in Lieu of Taxes, or PILT, program at $465 million, which provides monetary compensation to local governments throughout Alaska for vital services, such as firefighting and police protection, construction of public schools and roads, and search-and-rescue operations.

This includes continued funding for Essential Air Services, which maintains commercial flights in 60 small Alaska communities. The legislation also allocates significant resources to the EPA’s program to construct or improve wastewater and drinking water systems in Native villages and throughout rural Alaska.

In addition, the bill enables the Denali Commission to continue to build infrastructure in rural Alaska, and be the lead agency in assisting environmentally threatened communities with issues such as coastal erosion. Funding for that agency is $15 million.

EPA budget: “We made clear there should be a focus on the EPA’s real mission as clean air and clean water,” Murkowski said. Fairbanks has air quality requirements from the EPA. The budget includes clean air grants for that city. Wastewater grants continue through the Alaska Village Safe Water Program.

Harbors: Army Corp of Engineers Operations and Maintenance funding includes $10.6 million for the Port of Anchorage and nine other Alaska harbors, including $2.4 million for evaluation of a deep draft port at Nome.

Labor Health and Human Services grants include funding the Low Income Energy Assistance Program and impact aid for school districts. It also funds after-school programs that help keep kids engaged through the 21st Century Community Learning Centers. It makes available funding grants to address substance abuse such as Alaska’s opioids crisis and behavioral health treatment as well as block grants for preventing illnesses, chronic diseases and rape prevention.

Transportation and housing: TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Development) grants make $500 million available for capital projects that generate economic development and improved transportation for communities.

Home Investment Partnerships Program (HOME) received an allocation of $950 million to fill affordable housing needs.

Firefighter grants: $690 million available on a competitive basis to staff and equip local fire departments.

Prohibits spending: Prohibits the Fish and Wildlife Service from using funds to conduct a costly caribou hunt on Kagalaska Island in the Aleutian Chain. The FWS has previously estimated that it would cost $71,000 in taxpayer money to send four employees to the island to hunt and process the caribou. The legislation also prohibits costly and impractical efforts to remove cattle from the remote Chirikof Island.

Murkowsk said she didn’t get everything she wanted in the bill. But as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and chairman of the Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, she worked to fund key Alaska priorities.

“A level of compromise was required and that’s what we did. I worked with the ranking member (of the Appropriations Committee), from New Mexico, (Democrat Sen. Tom) Udall, working through priorities that were important to New Mexico and Alaska and all the other 48 states. We did it in a way there was give and take,” she said.

Though this year’s potential spending crisis is averted, there won’t be time to rest between preparing the budgets for fiscal years, she added.

“Today we finished the FY 17 budget; tomorrow, work on FY 18 starts,” she said.

Naomi Klouda be reached at [email protected]

05/04/2017 - 3:41pm