Fairbanks Daily News Miner: Murkowski calls on Legislature to capitalize on the opportunity in federal funding

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski delivered her annual address to the Alaska Legislature on Wednesday, heralding billions of dollars in new federal spending coming the state’s way but warning there is still much work to be done to make the state a place where people “live and work and play and stay.”

Where such addresses are typically an opportunity for Alaska’s congressional delegation to tout accomplishments on the federal level, Murkowski was unusually direct about the need for the Legislature to make the most of the opportunity and called for legislators to make investments in things like the Alaska Marine Highway, child care, education and housing, and to take a strong role in advocating for resource development.

She said she was particularly troubled by the state’s ongoing outmigration and bottom-of-the-barrel statistics in things like employment and the state’s slow economic recovery from the pandemic. Changing those trends, she said, will require more than a check from the federal government.

“Friends, Alaska cannot settle for being in 49th in anything but statehood. We cannot settle for it,” she said. “We cannot be a place where people spend a part of their lives, only to pack it up and leave because they don’t see a future for them and their family. Or watch as the kids that they raised leave here and never come back. Alaska needs to be the place where people want to move to and want to stay because they have good jobs that support their families, they have a good place to live, they have good schools where their kids can excel. They have a quality of life that cannot be matched anywhere else. Where we take care of our fellow Alaskans when they hit rough patches. That is going to take a vision from all of us.”

She said federal investments like money for infrastructure and broadband access as well as hundreds of smaller grants, like one to finally demolish the empty Polaris Building in downtown Fairbanks, are the sorts of things that can help bridge the state to its future. She directly called on the Legislature to provide the matching funds to secure federal funds for the Alaska Marine Highway, reminding lawmakers that it’s the Alaska ferry system and not the federal ferry system.

“We can’t count on that forever. It’s not open-ended here. The delegation, the administration and the Legislature are all equal partners in Alaska’s success,” she said. “We need to be pulling together to be taking full advantage of these opportunities while they’re still in front of us. While I start a new term, I’m looking at every facet of how we can make Alaska the best place to live and work and play and stay.”

Child care was high on the list of priorities she hoped the Legislature could make meaningful progress on. Legislators have already held several hearings on the lack of affordable and accessible child care and its impacts on the workforce, and Murkowski highlighted legislation proposed by Anchorage Rep. Zack Fields that would empower child care providers to have a stronger role in directing state and federal grants. She outlined several efforts to increase the number of child care centers and to ensure workers are paid fairly.

“Every region of our state lacks sufficient access to child care. That’s taking people, particularly moms, out of the workforce. Lack of child care, we’re learning more and more, can even impact our national security footing in this state,” she said, noting conversations she’s had with military leadership about how the lack of child care is impacting decisions around locating troops. “I would urge you do, do what you can from here by putting this issue firmly on the agenda for the 33rd Legislature.”

Her biggest call to action, though, was in support of the Willow Project. With about two weeks to go until the federal government is expected to reach a final decision on the permitting for what could be the state’s largest new oil development in decades, Murkowski said it’s critical that everyone in Alaska pull together for the project that’s located in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

“This has truly been a unified, unified effort,” she said, referring to efforts of the Congressional delegation, the administration and Alaskans to advocate for the project. “But we all know this is a difficult administration to deal with from Ambler to ANWR to the Tongass, we’ve had decision after decision go against us. Even this one, a socially just project located within a petroleum reserve, is perilously close. We need to finish strong, every one of us needs to do everything that we can with every remaining day to make the case why an economically viable project should be approved.”

At the request of U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, a resolution supporting Willow is being fast tracked through the Legislature. On Monday, the House voted unanimously in support of the resolution, and it could pass the Senate by the end of this week.

Murkowski said if the Biden administration ultimately rejects the proposal over the recommendations of career experts, it will be “nothing but pure politics and nothing to do with the merits of the project.”

Murkowski also fielded questions from legislators, including two from the Interior Delegation.

North Pole Rep. Mike Prax asked about the status of the Environmental Protection Agency’s actions on regulating wintertime air quality in the Fairbanks area. Murkowski recognized that the efforts have already seen emissions reduced by as much as 50% and said the federal government should take that into consideration. She also said she believed further deep reductions were not economically feasible, pledging to continue to pressure the federal government to be more reasonable with the issue.

Tok Rep. Mike Cronk asked about the status of the Yukon River Chinook salmon, which are considered effectively extinct, and what could be done. Murkowski said it highlighted the interconnectedness of Alaska and stressed the importance of continued investment in the research and science to better understand the fishery’s collapse and what could be done to address it.

By:  Matt Buxton
Source: Fairbanks Daily News Miner