Senator Murkowski's 2009 Report to Alaskans
My Fellow Alaskans:
This past year has seen some major changes for the Alaska congressional delegation. Not only do I have a new colleague in the Senate, Mark Begich, but I have been elevated to the Ranking Member role on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, selected to serve on the Appropriations Committee and elected to a position in the Senate's Republican leadership. As we look forward to next year and the start of the second session of the 111th Congress, I wanted to update you on some of the work we did in 2009 and share with you some of my thoughts for the coming year.
Our nation continues to face difficult economic issues as we come to grips with the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, increased federal spending to address the ongoing recession and the domestic priorities of the new administration. At the same time, I remain watchful of the role the federal government has with our state. This special relationship stems from the fact that nearly two-thirds of our land is controlled by Washington, D.C., that we have unique responsibilities to our veterans and our Native people, and responsibilities to the men and women in uniform who provide top cover for our nation's defense and protect the sovereignty of American fisheries.
We will continue to be an energy state because of our oil and gas production and the Trans Alaska Pipeline. However, as our proven oil reserves decline, we must to do all we can to extend the lives of existing fields, safely develop new reserves, bring our natural gas to market and assume a greater leadership role in alternative and renewable energy. In spite of Alaska's dominance in providing energy to the rest of America, we are challenged in addressing critical energy needs in our own state such as a sustainable energy source to power Southcentral, new initiatives to reduce the dependence of rural Alaska on diesel, and interconnecting the Southeast electric grid.
I hope you will take a moment and look through my year in review as I touch on some of our work in 2009. We continue to move forward on the Alaska agenda and I find your feedback and suggestions invaluable, so I would encourage you to communicate with me through my website, https://www.murkowski.senate.gov, with whatever might be on your mind.
Best Wishes in the New Year,
The Ongoing Health Care Debate
Health care reform is an issue that has engaged not just members of Congress but many Alaskans throughout 2009. Over my opposition, the Senate passed a health care bill on a straight party line vote. I've heard from over 17,000 Alaskans this year through letters, emails and phone calls, and addressed several thousand more in person during town hall meetings on health care that I held across the state, telephone-town hall meetings and one "virtual" town hall with residents of Kodiak. Alaskans raised numerous concerns about health care reform, ranging from the cost of the plan to the creation of a federally run government health program.
Sen. Murkowski speaks to participants after a health care town hall in Wasilla in August.
Simply put, the proposal fails to make the needed changes to improve our health care system and is too costly, at $2.5 trillion over 10 years. It will raise taxes on individuals, families and small businesses, increase health insurance premiums and cut Medicare by almost a half trillion dollars.
While I support health care reform, I have said from the beginning that we should adopt a step-by-step approach focusing on areas both sides can agree on such as banning lifetime caps on insurance, coverage denials based on pre-existing conditions, enacting junk lawsuit reforms and allowing insurers to sell across state lines.
As this bill is conferenced, I ask that you continue to send me your thoughts and views on this vital issue that will affect all Americans.
Aid for Alaska Projects Pending in New Energy Bill
This past summer, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, on which I am the ranking Republican member, approved changes to the federal loan guarantee program to help with financing of an Alaska natural gas pipeline. The bill now awaits consideration by the full Senate.
The bill would approve raising the federal loan guarantee to $30 billion, plus inflation, from the existing $18 billion cap and allow the Federal Financing Bank to participate in financing either an overland line through Canada or an Alaska pipeline with LNG tankers to move the gas to the West Coast. The legislation also would clarify that the government must guarantee financing for the full cost of a project to get Alaska's North Slope gas to market. These changes, together with the "open seasons" that either the Denali pipeline consortium or Trans-Canada may hold in 2010 to solicit financial support for a line, are designed to improve chances for early construction of a project.
In August at Chena Hot Springs, Sen. Murkowski dedicated the nation's first mobile geothermal turbine device. Pictured with Sen. Murkowski are, from left, John Fox, general manager of PureCycle Solutions, Bernie Karl, president of Chena Energy and Rep. Don Young.
Further, the bill would set up a consolidated permitting office to help Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) oil and gas exploration and development proceed. On a related note, Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and I have introduced a bill that would allow states to share revenue from any offshore oil and natural gas production.
Also this year, I introduced a bill that would take a new approach for developing oil and gas from underneath the Arctic coastal plain. The bill would allow for subsurface oil and gas development in the ANWR, as long as the exploration and production is done by directional drilling, which would eliminate impacts on the surface of the refuge. A hearing was held this fall that showed how far the technology has come and I hope that progress can be made on the bill in 2010.
Safeguarding the Second Amendment Rights of Alaskans
2009 was a year of potential challenges to the Second Amendment. Like many Alaskans, I remain wary of those who would seek to restrict our right to bear arms.
I worked with my colleagues to bring common sense to firearms restrictions on federal lands. In the past, firearms rules in National Forests deferred to state laws, while firearms were banned in most National Parks. Many parks in Alaska were exempt, but the rules were still confusing and unfair. Under a law passed in May of 2009, all federal agencies will defer to their host state's firearms regulations. The Department of Interior is in the process of implementing new regulations, so please check firearms rules before you visit a National Park.
I have also supported measures to lower the cost of ammunition, require equal treatment of concealed-carry permits and protect the Second Amendment rights of veterans. In addition, I have spoken out against restrictive new firearms registration proposals.
Standing up for the Military and Veterans
This past year presented some challenges and opportunities for our military veterans and active duty service members.
First, in January, the Department of Defense (DOD) reversed its previous position that service in the Alaska Territorial Guard (ATG) during World War II counted as active duty service in the U.S. Armed Forces when it came to calculation of retirement pay. This would have resulted in a significant reduction in military retirement benefits paid to about two dozen Alaska Native Elders. Thankfully, as a result of our work over several months, an amendment I introduced was included in this year's Defense Authorization Act and was signed into law by the President in late October. The bill provides that service in the ATG during World War II will count toward military retirement. DOD is expected to restore ATG retirement benefits by the end of December 2009.
As a member of the Senate Appropriations panel that funds the Veterans Administration, I was able to ensure that this year's VA appropriations bill contains new language authorizing the VA to utilize the Alaska Native Health System to deliver care to veterans residing in rural Alaska
After visiting with Alaska National Guard members who returned from active duty in Iraq, I became concerned that members of the Guard and Reserve were being released from active duty before their service-connected injuries were fully evaluated. I joined with Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin in legislation to ensure that injured members of the Guard and Reserve are able to remain on active duty to seek treatment for their battlefield injuries in the military health system, rather than have to seek care from the VA or private providers at home. Our measure was included in the Defense Authorization Act.
Eielson Air Force Base is the gateway to some of the Air Force's best training ranges and hosts Red Flag Alaska, one of its most significant worldwide training exercises. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, we were able to increase the federal investment in Eielson and in the ranges. The Military Construction Appropriations Act includes funding to improve Taxiway Golf on Eielson's flight line which will improve the efficiency of Red Flag Alaska and other exercises embarking from Eielson.
Improving Education for Alaska's Future
One of my highest priorities has always been working to improve the lives of children. Unfortunately, many of the schools in rural Alaska have few books in which children can find fun and adventure. Some schools don't even have a library.
Through the Library of Congress's surplus books program, I was able to send storybooks, teen fiction, classic literature, biographies, and other types of books and materials to schools in Alaska Gateway, Aleutian Region, Annette Island, Bering Strait, Chugach, Copper River, Delta-Greely, Iditarod, Kashunamiut, Kuspuk, Lower Kuskokwim, Lower Yukon, Pribilof Island, Southeast Island, Southwest Region, Yukon Flats, Yukon Koyukuk, and Yupiit school districts. Each day, the Library of Congress receives some 20,000 items from other libraries around the country and the items not kept as part of the permanent collections are made available for donation. I am pleased to have sent nearly 1,500 books this year from this program.
Having access to high quality education is as important as having a wonderful book to read. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was intended to ensure that every child would be able to read, write and do math on grade level and be prepared for work, job training or college when graduating from high school. However, it is difficult to write one law that will work well for both New York City and Nuiqsut. This year, I re-introduced my School Accountability Improvement Act in order to address specific challenges Alaskans face in complying with NCLB.
Essentially, my legislation would require the U.S. Department of Education to allow states to determine schools' success based on individual students' progress. This would give credit to schools if students are improving but have not yet met the state's proficiency goals.
Sen. Murkowski reads to kindergartners and first graders on St. Paul Island during a visit in 2009.
Protecting Alaska's Federal Employee Retirement Benefits
After many years of hard work, a legislative change was finally enacted that will give Alaska's 125,000 federal employees a cost-of-living-adjustment that will count towards retirement, putting Alaska's employees on par with the Lower 48. Previously, federal workers in Alaska, Hawaii and the U.S. territories received a cost of living allowance (COLA) based on the increased costs of living in those areas. But unlike the locality pay received by federal employees in high cost areas of the Lower 48, the COLA is not factored in for retirement purposes. Furthermore, while locality rates generally increase, Alaska's COLA rates have generally been declining from a high of 25 percent to the current 23 percent in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau.
This year's Defense Authorization Act, which was signed into law in October, included a provision to shift Alaska's federal employees from COLA to locality pay over a three-year transition period. The transition period begins in the first pay period of 2010, and over the next three years locality pay will be phased in while COLA is gradually phased out. At no point during the transition period is a reduction in take-home pay expected.
Working for Alaska Natives
This year saw a number of issues facing Alaska Natives and as a member of Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, I was able to defend Alaska's Native Corporations on their ability to operate under the 8(a) program and also work to improve life in Alaska's Native communities and villages.
This past summer, the Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight held a hearing on the contracting preferences extended to Alaska Native Corporations, Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations. While not a member of this subcommittee, I was invited to participate and defend the benefits of these preferences for Alaska Natives. As a result of this hearing, I have requested that Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, hold a hearing on the Native American 8(a) program and examine the federal Indian policy behind it. While reform may be needed to protect the purpose and the integrity of the Native American contracting program, I believe that this should be done at a neutral hearing that includes all stakeholders.
Additionally, the Committee on Indian Affairs approved three important pieces of legislation that await Senate floor consideration -- the Tribal Law and Order Act, the Indian Health Improvement Act and the Indian Youth Suicide Prevention Act. These bills would bolster law enforcement in our Native villages, expand the delivery of health services and target the youth suicide epidemic.
When the fuel crisis hit Emmonak and other communities in Western Alaska last winter, I worked closely with the government and local communities to make sure they were getting the help they needed. When spring flooding devastated villages from Eagle to the Bering Sea, I asked President Obama to make sure that FEMA would be there to help our communities recover. And I've been working with Newtok, Shishmaref, Kivalina and other communities in bringing federal resources to address critical erosion problems.
Advancing America's Role in the Arctic
The balance of the Arctic is one of my top priorities in the Senate. As our climate changes, navigable Arctic waterways remain free of ice for longer periods of time in the summer. With the inevitable increase in maritime activity, U.S. policy regarding the Arctic becomes increasingly important.
In December, I introduced the Arctic Deep Water Port Act, legislation that would direct the Secretary of Defense to conduct a study to determine the feasibility of building a deep water port in the Arctic. With the potential for further industrial and commercial activity in the Arctic region, the United States must be prepared to protect human life as well as the vulnerable Arctic environment. The two-year study would seek to determine what strategic capabilities a deep water port could provide as well as the best location to site such a facility.
This past August, I introduced two other Arctic-related bills. The Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment Implementation Act would direct the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to work with the International Maritime Organization to establish agreements among Arctic nations to coordinate shipping infrastructure. The second bill, the Hydrographic Services Improvement Act, would authorize funding to get data and services to the Arctic for safe navigation, delineate the U.S. extended continental shelf and monitor coastal changes.
In this year's Homeland Security Appropriation bill, I secured an appropriation of $32.5 million to enhance the United States's polar icebreaker capability. The icebreaker funding would go to finish the reactivation of the Polar Star, which is coming out of caretaker status. At present, the only working heavy icebreaker, the Polar Sea, has seven years remaining on its service life. I was also able to secure a $5 million appropriation to start the pre-design process to construct new polar class heavy icebreakers.
To further bring attention to the Arctic, in August, I convened a field hearing of the Homeland Security Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee in Anchorage to examine the strategic importance of the Arctic and U.S. Arctic Policy. Among the witnesses presenting their perspectives were Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell and Admiral Thad Allen, Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard.
Izembek Land Exchange, Kenai Heritage Area, Other Land Bills Win Final Congressional Approval
This past spring, after a multi-year effort, Congress passed and the President signed into law a major Omnibus Lands Act that could lead to the construction of an emergency evacuation road from King Cove to the all-weather airport at Cold Bay on the Alaska Peninsula.
The law aims to improve the health and safety of King Cove residents, while adding about 60,000 acres of important wildlife habitat to the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. The land exchange between the State, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the King Cove Native Corporation is designed to permit a one-lane road around Cold Bay to allow for medical transports from the fishing village in bad weather.
The bill also creates the Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm National Heritage Area designed to aid tourism on the Kenai Peninsula, and completes a 12-acre Coffman Cove land exchange.
To continue helping the timber industry, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing in October on a Sealaska lands bill that I introduced in March. The bill would finally provide Sealaska with the lands it was allowed to select 39 years ago. In addition to the Sealaska measure, I introduced a timber retooling grant bill to help the industry modernize.
Those bills, along with a bill to create Native village corporations for the five "landless" towns in Southeast (Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Tenakee and Haines), are part of my Southeast Regional Initiative, which is intended to help improve the Panhandle's economy by promoting transportation and revitalizing the timber and tourism industries.
Alaska Does Well on Appropriations Projects
Earlier this year, I was appointed to the Senate Committee on Appropriations. In this role, I have fought for programs and projects that are vitally important to our state, including funding for federal fisheries research and management, the Indian Health Service and the Denali Commission. As a member of the Appropriations panel, I blocked an attempt to strip unspent federal funding for rural water and sanitation projects in our state, and instead I secured a provision, which is now law, that requires that $65 million in unspent federal water and sewer funding be committed to projects in Alaska by mid-January 2010. In addition, I secured $37 million in new funding for water and sanitation projects in Alaska for fiscal year 2010. It's important for Alaska to have a representative on the Appropriations Committee, which has broad responsibility over the federal budget. Serving on Appropriations allows me to fight for Alaska, making sure that our state's needs are understood.
Saving a Christmas Tradition for Alaska
On the eve of the Christmas season this year, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) announced new regulations for a program allowing volunteers across the country to respond to letters addressed to "Santa Claus, North Pole." In an effort to protect children's identities, the new regulations required Postal Service employees to redact children's last names and addresses and to track all letters in a database. Following this announcement, the USPS announced that it was discontinuing the program entirely in Alaska. When I heard about this, I immediately contacted the Postmaster General asking for a reconsideration of this policy. Responding to "Dear Santa" letters has been an important part of Alaska's culture - especially that of North Pole - for decades. Several days later, in a phone call with the Deputy Postmaster General, I received a commitment from the U.S. Postal Service to allow volunteers in Alaska to respond to "Dear Santa" letters again. I was pleased to have helped keep the Christmas spirit in Alaska and find a compromise that will allow children to hear back from Santa Claus this Christmas season.
Places to Go, Alaskans to See, and Legislative Focus in 2010
The best way for me to learn about the issues important to Alaskans is to visit communities and to listen to Alaskans firsthand. This year, despite my knee injury, I had another busy travel schedule meeting with Alaskans across the state from Klawock to Barrow in the following regions: Southeast, Aleutian/Pribilofs, Yukon-Kuskokwim, Bering Straits, Northwest Arctic, North Slope, Interior, Kenai Peninsula and Southcentral.
There are still many villages that I have not yet had a chance to visit, but this year, I was able to visit St. Paul for the first time. I will do my best to visit each region and coordinate my travel schedule with local events and conferences.
With unemployment at 8.7 percent in Alaska, and our state's economy also suffering from the effects of the nation-wide recession, one of my priorities in the Senate next year will be on finding ways to spur job creation and economic growth. As a member of the Senate Appropriations Military Construction Subcommittee, I will have a direct role in making sure that our military bases in Alaska have the resources they need to provide top cover for our nation's defense. As the ranking Republican member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, I'll also continue to push for incentives to spur the development of a natural gas pipeline and look for ways to increase our domestic energy security through additional oil and gas production in both Alaska and the Lower 48.
Thanks for taking time to read my newsletter. Let me wish you all a Happy New Year and reiterate that I welcome and appreciate your comments and suggestions as we move forward on our national and Alaska agendas in 2010.
While traveling to Barrow in June, Sen. Murkowski visited with master skin-sewer Priscilla Sage, who showed the Senator a skin boat. The boat is a traditional umiaq from bearded seal skins.
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