Senator Murkowski - eNewsletter 06-12-09

Murkowski Meets With Veterans Secretary Eric Shinseki

Earlier this year I was appointed to serve on the Veterans Affairs Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee. I hope to use this important assignment to improve services to Alaska’s 75,000 veterans, particularly those who live in Alaska communities that are not served by VA facilities.

On May 22 I met with Veterans Administration (VA) Secretary Eric Shinseki to discuss my VA priorities. The first thing I asked of the Secretary was to travel with me to Alaska to meet our veterans. Secretary Shinseki agreed and I look forward to the opportunity to take that trip. We discussed some of the good things the VA is doing to service Alaska’s veterans like the new VA outpatient clinic in Anchorage, and the new Community Based Outreach Clinics for MatSu, Juneau and Homer. Secretary Shinseki indicated that the Veterans Benefits Administration has filled the long vacant Decision Review Officer position in Anchorage. Our Veterans Services Organizations, led by the DAV, have been fighting to see this happen for many years.

Most of the meeting was focused on the healthcare access problems of Alaska veterans, particularly the access challenges facing veterans who do not live on the road system. We also discussed the VA’s policy of flying veterans to Seattle for services that are already available in their own communities. Secretary Shinseki was sympathetic to my concerns and agreed to work with me on them.

Following the meeting, the Anchorage VA Health System briefed my staff on a new Rural Alaska Healthcare Pilot which will enable veterans currently enrolled in the Alaska VA health system who live in parts of Western Alaska and the City of Cordova to receive two primary care visits with a local provider at VA expense. Additional primary care visits may be authorized at the VA’s discretion. Specialty care and behavioral health services are excluded from the pilot. The pilot will be implemented in the near future and will last for one year. I have asked VA senior leadership to closely monitor the implementation of this pilot to ensure that it is properly executed.  I have also registered my concern that the pilot is too narrowly focused. A well executed pilot is a small step in the right direction. However, Alaska veterans still need an integrated system that serves their needs where they live. Under Secretary Shinseki’s leadership, I am hopeful that Alaska’s veterans will begin to see this kind of system emerge.

Alaska Commander Is Promoted

Lt. Gen. Douglas Fraser, former Commander of the Alaskan Command and previous Commander of the Third Wing at Elmendorf Air Force Base, has been confirmed by the Senate for promotion to General. He will be moving to Miami, FL, to command U.S. Southern Command. I was honored to recommend Lt. Gen. Fraser’s confirmation before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month.

Murkowski Amendments Benefit Alaska Natural Gas Pipeline

I recently secured several major provisions in energy legislation that will help advance the Alaska natural gas pipeline.  A gas line is absolutely essential for Alaska’s economic future and I am committed to doing everything I can to see it built.

The provisions for the gas line are included in a comprehensive energy bill being vetted by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

My efforts to bolster the financing and construction of an Alaska natural gas pipeline project include these changes to the federal loan guarantee program:

•    Provides a $30 billion, plus inflation, loan guarantee for the project – an increase from the $18 billion guarantee secured in 2004

•    Allows use of the Federal Financing Bank to capitalize the project in order to reduce administrative costs and interest rates, thereby shrinking the overall cost of the pipeline by hundreds of millions of dollars

•    Clarifies language of the original 2004 loan guarantee to ensure the federal government provides a 100 percent loan guarantee for up to 80 percent of the cost of the total project

•    The bill also includes a series of technical amendments to the 2004 act to speed issuance of the loan guarantee

These provisions are all applicant neutral and beneficial to Alaska’s efforts to get a gas line built regardless of whether TransCanada or the Denali project are ultimately successful.

Clean-burning Alaska natural gas will be critical to not only Alaska’s economic future, but also to efforts to increase our energy security and reduce emissions.

The energy bill also includes language which would grant a right-of-way through a small portion of the Denali National Park for a in-state gas line. This helps allow for a fair comparison between both the proposed Parks Highway and Richardson-Glenn Highway routes. 

On a related matter, I am glad to hear that Exxon Mobil and TransCanada have come together to work on advancing a natural gas pipeline from Alaska’s North Slope to customers of the Lower 48. I cannot emphasize enough how absolutely essential a gas line is for Alaska’s economic future and for our nation’s energy security.

Murkowski Introduces Legislation for Alaska Aviation

Recently, I introduced legislation designed to protect and improve aviation in Alaska. This legislation, known as the Alaska Omnibus Aviation Improvement Act (S.1170), addresses five aviation priorities for Alaska, including an important exemption that would allow the Iditarod Air Force to keep flying in support of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

My bill provides a five year exemption for the Iditarod Air Force. Current FAA regulations do not allow volunteer pilots to accept cost deferments for items such as fuel, accommodations and food. The exemption would allow volunteer pilots to accept deferments for flying in support of Alaska’s last great race.  This exemption would also give the FAA time to find a long-term solution for the Iditarod Air Force to keep flying.

My legislation also contains a provision to allow federal Airport Improvement Program grants to be used for creating airport trainee positions. Currently, federal AIP grants cannot be used to create trainee positions and the ability to use these grants to create jobs would contribute to workforce development in these challenging economic times.

My legislation also addresses flight service stations. Flight service stations play a vital role in ensuring safety and support for pilots in Alaska.  The bill would require the FAA to create and implement a plan to train flight service specialists.  A formal training program for Alaskan flight service specialists does not currently exist since the FAA no longer offers the initial training.  Further, the bill would require the FAA to examine existing flight service stations and create a schedule for necessary inspections and upgrades.

In addressing safety, the Aviation Improvement Act would provide federal funding from 2009-2012 for the Medallion Foundation, a non-profit organization that works to reduce aviation accidents in Alaska. The Medallion Foundation provides training and educational services to pilots and sets voluntary standards above FAA regulations that air carriers strive to meet.  In addition, my legislation would also provide federal funding from 2009-2012 to the Alaska Aviation Safety Project. A joint venture between the state of Alaska and the federal government, the Foundation is developing three dimensional maps of Alaska’s main aviation corridors.  

You can find out more information on my bill by visiting this website.

Visiting Alaskans

I recently met the Norris family from Valdez who were visiting Washington. My staff also took them on a tour of the U.S. Capitol. If you will be visiting Washington in the coming months and would like to take a tour during your visit, please visit my website.

Notable Office Calls

Senator Murkowski met with (right) Brigadier General Mark Graper, Commander of Eielson Air Force Base and Chief Master Sgt. Earl Hannon, Command Chief Master Sergeant of Eielson Air Force Base. Both men were in Washington for their annual visit with Sen. Murkowski to discuss the work being accomplished at Eielson.

Sen. Murkowski recently met with the new Deputy Federal Coordinator of the Office of Pipeline Coordinator, Admiral Tom Barrett, who will help with the management of the Alaska natural gas pipeline coordinator’s office. The office will also oversee permitting and construction of an Alaska natural gas pipeline.

Sen. Murkowski meets with Dr. James Billington, the Librarian of Congress. Sen. Murkowski is the ranking member of the legislative branch subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which has oversight of the Library of Congress.

Calling Soon

I have been using a new program to hold interactive, town hall style meetings over the phone. This program, known as a ‘teletownhall,’ enables me to spend time speaking with and taking questions from Alaskans just as if we were in the same room together.  To participate, all that you need is a telephone.

My next teletownhall will be taking place later this month. If you would like to participate, please visit my website to sign up.

You can also listen to the audio from my first teletownhall on April 29 by going here.

Congratulations, Graduates!

Sen. Murkowski celebrates the high school graduation of her son, Nic, with husband Verne, mother-in-law Dorothy and son Matt.

As many Alaskans graduate from high school, college and other programs, I extend my sincere congratulations to all of Alaska’s newest graduates. You’ve worked very hard and should be immensely proud of your achievements. I wish you the very best of luck in your future pursuits.