2007 Annual Report

Water Resources Development Act Becomes Law

In November, the House and Senate overrode the President's veto of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), enabling the legislation to become law. Congress authorizes specific Army Corps of Engineers projects in WRDA, including studies, before appropriating funds to them. Congress had not completed a WRDA since 2000.

Passage of a Water Resources bill was long overdue. I applaud my fellow members of Congress for recognizing the importance of this legislation so that we can finally appropriate funds for critical infrastructure projects in Alaska and across the country.

I worked with Senator Stevens and Congressman Young to include several important projects for Alaska in WRDA. The projects will impact communities across the state. Visit my website for the full list.

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Tax Legislation Passes The Senate

In December, I won Senate approval of legislation to give individual plaintiffs in the Exxon Valdez oil spill litigation tax relief so the fishermen and Alaskans who may receive punitive damages would be able to keep more of the money they rightfully deserve. The bill applies to all of the individual plaintiffs in the oil spill settlement, 80 percent of whom are commercial fishermen. It was critical to get this legislation passed in anticipation of the Supreme Court's final decision in the spring, and I am thankful for my colleagues' support in the Senate. I look forward to the House action on this legislation early in 2008.

Promoting Alternative Energy

In December, Congress passed a comprehensive energy bill that is a step forward in reducing energy costs for Alaskans and the nation.  One of the most exciting provisions for Alaska in the energy bill is a Renewable Energy Deployment Grant program that I authored with Senator Stevens.  That measure will provide federal grants of up to 50 percent of the cost of building a wide variety of renewable electricity projects: wind, geothermal, ocean (wave, tidal and current), biomass, solar, landfill gas and small hydroelectric projects in Alaska. The grant program, when funded, should help with the installation of potential projects like the Fire Island wind farm, and ocean energy projects in Cook Inlet or Southeast.

Additionally, the energy bill includes several sections to aid in the capture and storage of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. It specifically requires a study by the U.S. Geological Survey to find geologic structures to store carbon underground, keeping it out of the environment. The bill also includes funding for research on building large-scale carbon capture and storage facilities and calls for construction of demonstration storage facilities to prove that carbon can be stored at reasonable cost in the future. These provisions may help the Agrium coal gasification
project at Kenai.

For Alaska, which has some of the best potential for renewable energy development in the nation, this bill offers the promise for lower-priced and cleaner energy in the future. Combined with the Energy Policy Act of 2005 that provided loan guarantees and assistance for nuclear, hydrogen fuel cell and coal gasification technology, plus aid for wind, solar, biomass and landfill gas, Congress has taken huge steps to promote alternative energy and
energy efficiency.

We still need to promote more conventional fuel production to help us bridge the gap until these new technologies take over. We must continue to promote natural gas production from Alaska, open the Arctic coastal plain to oil development and work to increase natural gas production and revenue sharing from our offshore waters. I remain committed to pressing these goals in the future.

Making College More Affordable

In September, I joined my colleagues in passing the College Cost Reduction and Access Act.  The bill increases students' access to affordable education in college or through job training by increasing the amounts of Pell grants, putting a cap on student loan payments, providing for loan forgiveness and reducing federal student aid interest rates.

I am particularly proud that the College Cost Reduction Act includes the new College Access Challenge Grant program. I fought hard to include this new program, which will allow Alaska Advantage borrowers to continue to receive some of the lowest interest rates in the nation, and will help get more Alaskan students into college and job training.

Extending Secure Rural Schools Act

The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act provides a vital source of assured federal funding to schools and communities adjacent to the Tongass National Forest. The legislation expired in September 30, 2006, leaving Southeast Alaska school districts uncertain about their funding levels for the 2007-2008 school year.  I worked on a bipartisan basis with colleagues from other forest states to obtain a one-year extension which kept the program going for the current school year.  I also worked with my colleagues on a long-term extension which would increase Alaska's share of national funding available under this program as well as fully fund the federal Payments in Lieu of Taxes program.  Unfortunately we did not succeed in a long-term extension this year, but I will work with my colleagues in the Senate to ensure that Secure Rural Schools funding is available to our Southeast school districts for the 2008-2009 school year.

Extending Head Start

In December, I joined my colleagues to pass the Head Start for School Readiness Act. Head Start prepares low-income children for school by providing comprehensive, early childhood development services including educational, health, nutritional and social activities.

This legislation includes many priorities of Alaska Head Start Directors and would help them ensure that Alaskan children are ready to succeed in school, that their parents have the skills they need to help their children learn, and that children in even the most remote communities have health and nutrition services.

The Head Start for School Readiness Act will assist Head Start and Early Head Start programs in communities across Alaska. In addition to authorizing more funding, the bill expands eligibility for Head Start. The legislation also maintains local control over Head Start programs guaranteeing that communities may individually assess the best way to meet their unique needs.

Leading the Indian Affairs Committee

On June 4 of this year, Craig Thomas, my dear colleague and fellow member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, passed away after losing his brave struggle with leukemia. With his passing the people of Wyoming and the U.S. Senate lost a wonderful friend and tireless public servant. It was my great honor and privilege to be selected by the Republican caucus to replace him as Vice Chairman of the Committee on Indian Affairs and help carry on the important work of the Committee to improve the lives of American Indians and Alaska Natives.  I am also proud to be the first woman and the first Alaskan to hold a leadership position on this Committee.

By tradition, our Committee is a bipartisan body, and I am pleased that Chairman Byron Dorgan has vowed to continue this tradition in the 110th Congress. The Chairman and I share, as our highest priority, the goal of passing a bill that is of vital importance to the well being of Alaska Natives and to the Indian people throughout the nation - the reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. I am working with the Chairman to ensure it is finally enacted into law.

Addressing Alaska Physician Shortage

I will continue to support the work of our community health centers, critical access hospitals, and area health education centers. Our rural, frontier and low-income communities depend on these entities for important health needs. In February 2007, I convened a field hearing in Anchorage of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, to examine the physician shortage crisis facing Alaska and other parts of rural America. During the hearing we heard the dire predictions that a "perfect storm" is forming and the health care crisis will only get much worse before it gets better. The physician shortage facing our state - and the nation as a whole - is intolerable. I have introduced the Rural Physician Relief Act, a bill that provides tax incentives for physicians to practice in our most rural and frontier locations in the country.

In November 2007, I advanced through the HELP committee legislation that reauthorizes and increases funding for Community Health Centers and the National Health Service Corps. I am committed to improving both programs so healthcare providers have access to loan repayment assistance and so Alaskans can have better access to primary health care services.

Promoting Community Health Centers

Alaskan seniors are increasingly finding diminished access to physicians, in large part due to inadequate Medicare reimbursement rates. In 2003, Senator Stevens and I were able to implement a temporary increase on Medicare reimbursement rates which expired in 2006. We continue to work with the Senate Finance Committee to extend these measures once again. In order for Medicare beneficiaries to have access to primary healthcare services, Medicare must provide adequate reimbursements to offset the high costs of practicing medicine in Alaska. Changes need to be made to Medicare so that seniors will not have to face waiting lists or seek care in overcrowded emergency departments or even worse, not receive medical treatment altogether.

Last year with my support, Congress averted reimbursement cuts of over 10 percent to Medicare physicians and provided a 0.5 percent increase through June 30, 2008. Long-term reform of the Medicare payment formula is the best way to ensure that Alaska's physicians receive fair Medicare reimbursements that reflect increases in physicians' costs and in turn, will give Alaska's seniors access to quality and continuous healthcare.

Fighting for the SCHIP Program

In 2007, Congress worked to reauthorize and responsibly expand the popular Children's Health Insurance Program. I joined my colleagues in the Senate in supporting this program that extends vital health insurance to the most vulnerable segments of our population - low-income children and children of the working poor. 

Unfortunately, the President twice vetoed the legislation and the House of Representatives failed to override the President's veto.  In December, Congress passed and the President signed into law an 18 month extension of SCHIP Program that will fund the program through March 31, 2009, at current baseline funding levels, with an additional $800 million in SCHIP Program funding provided to maintain current program enrollment. In the second session of the 110th Congress, I will continue to work on expanding health insurance to more children of the working poor, ensuring that more low-income children have access to health care.

Combating Drugs

As part of the multifaceted offensive against illegal drugs in Alaska, I have been happy to support Alaska's Therapeutic Drug Courts, which successfully and economically integrate substance abuse treatments, drug testing, sanctions and incentives, and transitional services into a judicially-supervised setting. On June 14, 2007, I was honored to accept the National Association of Drug Court Professionals Congressional Leadership Award.

I also am pleased to report that my annual Senate resolution supporting the goals and ideals of Red Ribbon Week unanimously passed on October 16, 2007. By gathering together in celebrations throughout Alaska and wearing a red ribbon during the last full week in October, we demonstrate our commitment to help people, especially children, live drug-free lives.

Supporting Our Military Family Members

As Americans we rightfully thank and applaud the efforts of the men and women who serve in the US Armed Forces. However, we must also remember that the families of our service people sacrifice too. It is no small responsibility to maintain a home and family so that a loved one in uniform can focus on his or her mission.

On the eve of Thanksgiving, I introduced Senate Resolution 378, expressing the Senate's appreciation to our military families for their contribution to our nation's security. With 39 bipartisan cosponsors, the resolution was adopted unanimously by the Senate. In addition, I successfully included an amendment in the Senate's version of the Higher Education Act Reauthorization that will make it easier for military families to obtain need-based financial aid for higher education. I was successful in persuading TRICARE to reconsider a decision that Alaska Licensed Psychological Associates could no longer provide care to our military families. This victory increased the access of military families to behavioral health providers in the community and prevented the disruption of ongoing treatment to military families receiving care from Licensed Psychological Associates.

My staff in Alaska and in Washington, DC are pleased to work with military families every day to address their individual questions and concerns.

Supporting Our Servicemen And Returning Veterans

In 2007 I worked proactively to ensure that the needs of wounded warriors and veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom who have returned to Alaska were being met.  At the same time I continue to work with veterans of previous conflicts to ensure that they are receiving the benefits and services to which they are entitled. I remain deeply concerned about the number of veterans who must fly to a VA facility in Anchorage, Seattle or elsewhere to obtain care which may be available closer to home. A key priority is to ensure that Alaska National Guard veterans who live in rural Alaska have access to the health benefits they have earned.

In April, I visited military and VA health facilities to gain first hand knowledge about the quality of military and VA care in Alaska.   I also met with veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Vietnam era veterans, at Vet Centers in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Wasilla.  I hosted a roundtable discussion to determine how we can be better prepared as a community to respond to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury issues. Later in the spring, I brought key leaders from the Alaska National Guard, the VA and the Alaska Native healthcare delivery system together to discuss the concerns of guardsmen who live in rural Alaska.  These discussions laid the groundwork for a Memorandum of Understanding between the VA and the Alaska National Guard about care for returning guardsmen who live in rural Alaska.  The Memorandum of Understanding is a good start but the VA needs to do more to deliver services in the places where our veterans live.

In October I traveled to Camp Shelby, Mississippi, to welcome the members of the 3rd Battalion, 297th Infantry, Alaska National Guard home from a year of service in Kuwait.  In November, I convened a field hearing of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs to take testimony about the healthcare needs of these returning guardsmen.  This hearing was an important step in educating the VA about the needs in rural Alaska and opportunities to partner with the Alaska Native healthcare delivery system to address those needs.  While VA funding has increased substantially in recent years, getting this money into rural and Indian communities remains a challenge. I am heartened by language in the Fiscal Year 2008 appropriations conference requiring that the VA report to Congress on whether its allocation of funds is fair to rural vets.

I am deeply concerned about the difficulties some veterans encounter in obtaining employment in the civilian sector.  In the coming year we need to ensure that our veterans are given the opportunity to translate the skills and experience they gained in the military to civilian life.