From 4,000 miles away, in the nation’s capital, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski has to bite her tongue at times, watching the state’s budget turmoil.
“I know my lane,” she says, knowing that her role in Congress is different than the difficult “lane” her home state officials currently find themselves in.
However, Murkowski and her colleagues in the state’s congressional delegation, fellow senator Dan Sullivan and at large Congressman Don Young, have a laser focus on hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds that could be lost to Alaska if state legislators and Gov. Mike Dunleavy don’t get their act together and pass a state capital budget.
Capital budget funding is still pending in Juneau in the special session of the Legislature along with the unresolved 2019 Permanent Fund Dividend.
“What we’re focused on in Washington is the shortfalls in federal funds if they (the Legislature and governor) are not able to come up with the (state match),” in the capital budget, Murkowski said Friday in a briefing to Commonwealth North, an Anchorage business and community group.
“The federal (agency) side doesn’t care about Alaska’s issues or where the Legislature meets,” Murkowski said. “What they do care about is a date, and if they don’t hear from us by a certain date,” Alaska’s money gets sent to other states, she said.
The state must have a capital budget and matching funds by late July, or mid-August at the latest, or some of federal money is at risk, state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities officials have said.
Murkowski believes things will eventually come together.
“These are difficult discussions, but Alaskans have been there before. People need to be able to sit down and hash it out together. It helps to have everyone in the same room,” Murkowski said, referring to the decision by the governor and the House Republican Majority’s to end a rump special session in Wasilla and join the majority of state lawmakers at the state capital in Juneau.
Meanwhile, federal lawmakers in Washington have their own food fight going,” Murkowski acknowledged. “It’s July 19 and we still don’t have a federal budget deal. It could happen at any time, and I’m checking my phone messages.”
Still, the Sept. 30 end of the federal fiscal year is looming.
On other federal matters, Murkowski is more upbeat. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which Murkowski chairs, quietly reported out 22 energy-related bills last week, measures that are important but relatively noncontroversial.
“This follows on a similar success with our public lands package of bills” passed out last year that was left unchanged by the U.S. House and ultimately approved by President Donald Trump.
A new energy issue the senate committee is working on is nuclear, as a potentially safe and efficient source of electricity that does not contribute to climate change, Murkowski said.
What nuclear technology companies are working on are smaller, modular nuclear units that only require fuel changes only every 20 to 25 years.
Murkowski did encourage Commonwealth North to stay engaged in Arctic policy issues, and to encourage the state to show leadership. Commercialization of the Arctic is happening fast and the U.S. and its only Arctic state, Alaska, are not engaged, the Senator said.
Alaska is in a unique position to lead on this because other nations, even those in the Arctic, look at Alaska almost like its own country.
“We have a direct role, and an opportunity to lead,” she said.
In that regard, the senator and others in the state’s delegation are fighting for more funding for U.S. icebreakers. Money for one new vessel is secure with enough funds in hand to begin design work for a second.
But the first new ship won’t be operational for a decade and the sole U.S. heavy icebreaker, the Polar Sea, is due for retirement before then.
A second fight is brewing over where the new ships will be deployed. The Polar Sea is now assigned to Antarctica, where the U.S. has obligations to provide support.
The U.S. Coast Guard now plans to deploy the new icebreaker there to fulfill commitments, still leaving the U.S. with little Arctic presence.
“This is all the more reason to continue pushing for the second icebreaker, and a third and fourth,” Murkowski told Commonwealth North.