Murkowski says federal spending bill reaches throughout Alaska
December 26th, 2015 | Carey Restino
With the state feeling a fiscal crunch, elected leaders in Washington said they did they best they could to boost programs key to the state's success, especially in the social services sectors where cuts to state programs may be felt the hardest.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski is back in Alaska for the holidays now, and glad to put the haggling over the federal spending bill behind her. She says she's pleased with the provisions that made it into the bill that will help Alaskans, especially rural Alaskans, and optimistic that more progress can be done to help communities dealing with the impacts of climate change in coming months.
Murkowski said she was pleased with appropriations for more mapping and charting needs in Arctic waters, and put language in the appropriation to make sure the agencies get is used for priority projects.
There are also funds in this year's spending bill to talk weather.
"I see how down in the Lower 48, they say it's going to rain at 11:30 and it rains at exactly 11:30," Murkowski said. "Here in Alaska, they say it's going to be sunny and maybe it's sunny and maybe it's not. So I'm pushing the National Weather Service to tell me if there is more that we could be doing from a monitoring perspective."
Murkowski says she wants to know if there's a disparity between how much is appropriated to Lower 48 weather offices and Alaska weather office, and if there are gaps that can be rectified, like weather buoys or sea ice observation infrastructure.
"It's pushing the agency to say, 'Hey, there's a priority here in understanding what is going on with our Arctic environment.'"
Alaska's federal lawmakers were also able to convey land in Point Spencer north of Nome where U.S. Coast Guard facilities have sat dormant for decades. Murkowski said that agreement, struck between the Bering Straits Native Corporation, the Coast Guard and the federal lawmakers, took four years to come together, but now the land is open for future potential and in the meantime, it provides a safe place in the event of a ship needing to ride out a storm on its way to the Arctic.
Included in the federal funding bill is an additional $10 million for the Alaska Native Villages Water Program to assist villages with drinking water and wastewater systems, and money to help communities clean up junk and garbage that needed to be backhauled away from rivers.
There is also funding for more cleanup work on the Legacy wells in the Arctic - sites left behind when federal Bureau of Land Management projects ended.
"We are making progress, but in my view it is never enough and never fast enough," Murkowski said. "It's not easy - you need equipment and manpower and you have a limited season in which to do it, so it just takes time, but we are making headway."
Murkowski said, however, that the disparity between the speed at which the federal government requires private industry to move when there is some sort of environmental mess made and the speed at which the bureau itself is moving on the projects is shameful.
"It's painfully slow," she said. "There's an erosion of confidence in your government because of it. They came in and said one thing and did another."
On the social services side of things, Murkowski said things look good — there is more than $35 million to support suicide prevention programs and $9 billion in funding for Head Start, which is especially important if the state's draft budget goes through, since it would eliminate preschool programs run in public schools. There are funds to alleviate the causes of poverty through RurAL CAP, and funds for family health care and child nutrition.
And for the first time ever, there is funding to support tribal court activity in Alaska.
Provisions supporting the J-1 visa program through 2016 will help the Alaska seafood processing industry, which relies heavily on seasonal workers in its processing facilities.
Murkowski said that while some have criticized the way the $1.1 trillion federal spending bill was passed — Sen. Dan Sullivan voted against it — it was not nearly as hasty and back-room as many made it seem.
"This is not something that is developed in some dark room by just a few people," Murkowski said. "This is the first time in years we moved all 12 of the appropriations bills through the committee process. Every one had hearings and amendments at the full committee level."
Murkowski said while there was some last-minute modification, nearly everything in the bill was something they had worked on throughout the summer.
"It's not a perfect process by any stretch, but the vast majority of the work had been done through the open committee process.," she said.