Federal budget cuts slash Alaska programs, defense

WASHINGTON — Alaska does not fare well in the federal budget for fiscal year 2010 unveiled by President Barack Obama last week. Major cuts have been proposed in missile defense systems at Fort Greely, the Denali Commission and Alaska Native programs.
The budget would reduce missile defense funding by 35 percent, cancel construction of a second missile field at Fort Greely and freeze the number of missile interceptors.
The budget for the Denali Commission, a pet project of former Sen. Ted Stevens, would be slashed by $29 million. Funds also would be eliminated for rural safe water programs and affordable energy initiatives.
The Alaska congressional delegation must now begin the process of working out details of the budget on Capitol Hill before the 2010 fiscal year begins on Oct. 1.
Despite their lack of seniority, Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich are well placed to fight the missile defense cuts from their seats on major committees. In January, Murkowski joined the Senate Appropriations Committee. Begich was named to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Rep. Don Young was forced to give up his position as ranking Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, but he retains seniority and influence among GOP members.
In an unusual move, the delegation released a joint statement blasting the budget and its effects on Alaska.
Murkowski criticized the Defense Department for demanding additional study of the merits of ground based missile defense systems before it decides to expand Fort Greely.
“This is absolutely the wrong message to send to our adversaries,” she said.
“Moreover, the U.S. has already invested substantial amounts of money in the purchase of additional interceptor missiles and the construction of a second missile site. Are these dollars to be lost to our national security?”
Begich agreed. “At a time when North Korea continues to launch missiles capable of reaching American soil, cutting back America’s ground based missile defense program based at Fort Greely is ill-advised at best,” he said.
Other lawmakers also have been highly critical of the proposed missile defense cuts.
But Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., agrees with the Pentagon that further testing should be conducted on unproven missile defense systems. He is expected to hold hearings on the issue later this spring.
The Denali Commission, created at the behest of Stevens 10 years ago to help Alaska’s Native villages, would take a major hit under the Obama budget proposal.
The budget would eliminate $20 million for health clinic construction, $6 million for transportation programs and $3 million for job training.
The budget document terms the Denali Commission job training programs “redundant and unnecessary,” and said there is no evidence of positive results. It said Alaska receives adequate funding for road building and health clinics through other federal programs.
Also targeted for reduction in the Obama budget is the Village Safe Water program administered by the Environmental Protection Agency.
“These funds are used to improve the Third World sanitation conditions that plague rural Alaska and eliminate dependence on the honey bucket,” Murkowski said.
She pointed out that the Bush administration proposed similar cuts in 2005, but they were reversed after a visit to the Yukon Delta by EPA head Steven Johnson.
Murkowski said, “It is troubling that the new administration would derail the single program most important to preventing disease in our Native villages.”
Mocking a slogan from the Obama campaign, Murkowski said, “For Alaska’s Native people, these unwelcome changes are a nightmare, not changes that we can believe in.”
Begich also said the budget contains “a serious glitch when it redirects $90 million in Pacific Coast Salmon Recovery Fund monies to nationwide endangered species programs. The funds are intended to be used by Alaska, Western states and Indian tribes for Pacific salmon recovery and habitat conservation programs.”
Begich found a few bits of good news in the budget for Alaskans, including tax cuts for 300,000 families and a pay raise for 13,700 men and women serving in the armed forces. He also noted the increase in military construction funds for Alaska, including $200 million at Fort Wainwright, $51 million at Fort Richardson and $40 million at Elmendorf Air Force Base.
Begich said some of the budget cuts proposed by Obama “affect vital Alaska programs and show the lack of understanding federal budget writers have about our state and its needs.”
Begich pledged “to make sure each (budget cut) is justified or reversed when they don’t make sense.”
Earlier this year, Begich won Senate approval of an amendment to the budget resolution which would provide $150 million in funding for the Denali Commission. The budget resolution, however, is merely a spending blueprint and does not have the force of law. Individual appropriation bills must be enacted for each federal agency and program.
For his part, Young displayed a more philosophical objection to the Obama budget, terming the cuts “half-hearted” and “counter-productive” since expensive entitlement programs were not touched.
“I want to reassure Alaskans that these are just proposals and not the law, and I will continue to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to ensure that our great state is taken care of,” Young said.
Gov. Sarah Palin also blasted the proposed budget cuts and promised to work with the Alaska congressional delegation to overturn them.

By:  Betty Mills
Source: Originally published in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, May 10, 2009