Anchorage Chamber: Make it Monday
*As prepared, not delivered
I would like to thank the Chamber for your tireless work on behalf of businesses across our state, our families and the fundamental principles that make America exceptional.
And it is great to be home; for Alaska is certainly the most exceptional state in our nation and I am honored every day to serve you in the United States Senate.
Last week, while my colleagues drove around their respective districts in the Lower 48, I traveled the Yukon River and Kuskokwim River. I visited the communities of Mountain Village, Emmonak, Nunam Iqua, Alakanuk, Bethel, Nunapitchuk and Scammon Bay. If I deserve the Spirit of Enterprise Award, it is only because I am blessed to represent the people of Alaska, whose capacity for innovation is endless and enterprising spirit astounding.
I know that spirit is being tested. Our world is changing and especially here in Alaska, it feels ever more challenging. We see low prices affecting our resource sector, anemic global growth and constrained corporate and state capital budgets.
We see an endless avalanche of regulation from the executive branch in Washington, stifling and often contradictory compliance requirements for businesses and spiraling health care costs for our families.
We see uncertainity in the returns of our fish and game resources, forest fires and a rapidly changing Arctic. And we see the continued rise of radical Islam and the ever present threats to our national security from unstable regimes like North Korea.
Confronted with very real challenges and a media that often seems fixated on the negative, it is easy lose ourselves and get distracted from our goals. Economic uncertainty is not new in Alaska.
We have always been able to rebound back because the underlying attributes of Alaska are fundamentally strong. The resources are rich and the people are resilient. Your delegation is doing everything we can to leverage those attributes to maintain the foundation of Alaska’s economy. And we are succeeding because we are working together as a team.
When Senator Sullivan joined the delegation, we sat down and together identified committee assignments that mattered to Alaska. Instead of doubling up, we have spread the field and with Don in the House have been able to put together policies that are critically important as Alaska confronts our current circumstances.
A good example of that teamwork is the FAST Act, the first long term transportation bill in a decade. For too long, under the previous leadership in the Senate, we went from short term extension to short term extension of the critical authorities needed to fund our nation’s highway program.
Without a long-term bill, there was no predictability when it came to federal highway dollars. But with Senator Sullivan on the Environment and Public Works Committee in the Senate, and Don Young a senior member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in the House the Senate was able to put together a five year highway bill that will provide increasing annual highway dollars for Alaska.
With their positions, both Congressman Young and Senator Sullivan were able to put Alaska-focused provisions into the bill like additional funding for the Alaska Railroad, key permitting reforms to streamline the environmental review process, a robust tribal transportation program and funding for Alaska’s ferries. With a position on the conference committee that put together the final bill, I was able to defend their work at the final stage in the process.
With an increasing allotment of federal investment every year into our highway program, the FAST Act will provide an important, predictable base for the economy.
This is just one example of how your delegation has strategically positioned itself to maximize the leverage Alaska has in the Congress. Another good example is our work to leverage Alaska’s strategic position for national security.
With the rise of China, an aggressive posture by Russia and an ever more threatening North Korea, Alaska’s strategic position is as important as ever.
Alaska is represented on both the authorizing and appropriating side when it comes to national defense. By securing a seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Sullivan complimented my position on the Appropriations Defense Committee and together with Congressman Young in the House we are able to represent Alaska at each stage in the development of the key bills that affect the military presence in Alaska.
Together we have pushed key Alaska priorities such as stopping the drawdown of the 4-25, thereby preserving the force strength at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson. Two squadrons of F-35s and associated facilities to Eielson. Support for our missile defense system at Greely as well as long range discrimination radar research and development at Clear. Fort Wainright will see the addition of the Gray Eagle.
And a new strategic focus on the Arctic – including the full commitment to construct a heavy icebreaker. We have been banging the icebreaker drum for a while now and it is rewarding to see our colleagues embrace the need. But let me be clear, America doesn’t need just one icebreaker.
The emerging Arctic is adding another dimension to Alaska’s strategic importance and we have made headway in Washington to recognize that America is an Arctic Nation. I was successful in securing the full Committee’s support to construct a heavy icebreaker. Whether it is increased investment in our shore-side infrastructure for the Coast Guard, increased response capabilities in the Arctic region like the recent seasonal stationing of helicopters in Kotzebue, basic investments in charting and navigation, ports and yes, several heavy and medium Icebreakers – the national interest in the Arctic demands a national commitment.
We are winning the argument when it comes to the need, making the case for the strategic importance of the Arctic and starting to see the support of our colleagues translate into legislative language.
Alaska is currently set to receive the largest allocation of the 2017 military construction budget than any other state. These projects are expected to generate as much as 2,700 new jobs and will result in over 1,600 permanent jobs in Alaska. Again, with Senator Sullivan on the relevant policy committee and Congressman Young in the House we were able to develop and advance Alaska’s interests. Further, I was able to secure a position on the Conference Committee that finalized the FY 2017 Military Construction Appropriation Bill and through that position ensure Alaska’s interests aren’t lost at the end of the process.
But let me be clear, the delegation is successful advocating for Alaska not just because of the positions Alaska has in Congress. We are successful because the community is firmly behind our military. Alaska’s troops are the best. It is really their professionalism and commitment to country that attracts the Department of Defense to invest in Alaska. Please help me recognize the men and women who serve in Alaska, for their exemplary service and contributions both to Alaska and our country.
Our obligation to them for their service to our country is why we focus so hard on military families and veterans issues. Whether it is fighting for commissaries or to ensure that the housing allowance for households that have more than one member serving in Alaska is preserved, we are committed to ensuring Alaska’s servicemen and women have the quality of life they deserve in our state.
That extends to ensuring our veterans have access to quality medical care in Alaska. We had been successful at driving partnerships with community health centers and Native health facilities until this Administration’s failed implementation of the Choice Act.
We are working diligently to return to the integrated system of community care in place prior to implementation of the Choice Act. Further, we have secured provisions in pending legislation to increase funding for women veterans, the continued emphasis on ending veteran homelessness and a new focus on security and suicide prevention at the VA domiciliaries; including the one here in Anchorage.
We have also secured provisions that authorize the VA to purchase care for rural veterans from Community Health Centers and the Alaska Native health system and to expand the definition of “rural” to include the Matanuska-Susitna and Kenai Peninsula Boroughs.
So, from new strategic investments in assets like the F-35 and our missile defense system to improvements for our veterans, the military foundation of Alaska’s economy is strong and getting stronger.
Coupled with predictable federal highway funds and other federal investments in the state, together we are ensuring a base of activity that is critical to our economy.
Today, more than 85% of State capital spending and nearly one-third of the State’s operating budget will come from federal sources in the next fiscal year. That statistic does not include the direct spending by federal agencies or the military construction projects slated for the years to come. Let me say that again, more than 85% of State capital spending and nearly one-third of the State’s operating budget will come from federal sources in the next fiscal year.
We are laser focused as a delegation, and strategically positioned in Congress to ensure the federal side of Alaska’s economy is strong.
And we are delivering that strength while continuing to reduce discretionary government spending. According to the CBO, since 2011 we have reduced discretionary government spending as a percentage of GDP from 9.1% to 6.5%. We are doing that by prioritizing spending.
For example, as the Chair of the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriation Subcommittee I have made investments in clean water infrastructure and other critical programs the priority. Today, we have reduced the staffing levels at the EPA to the lowest level since 1989 by cutting back regulatory programs where proposed rules are being challenged in the courts.
With real challenges like lead and other contaminants in drinking water systems nationwide, I strongly feel that improving those systems is a higher priority than implementing a rule the courts have stayed. The EPA’s appropriation we just passed through the Senate Appropriations Committee reflects that prioritization.
I have also ensured that the federal agencies have the resources to not just fight wildfires, but I am working to end the practice of fire borrowing so that we are not robbing mitigation programs to fund suppression.
In the Interior Appropriations bill we also have been able to fully fund PILT to make sure communities receive their full entitlement for the federal land within their borders. The Interior bill also fully funds contract support costs for our native health system and makes critical investments in land conveyance, mapping and other resource supporting programs critical to Alaska’s future.
In fact, as I stand before you today the Republican controlled Senate has passed all twelve appropriations bills from committee. Although the majority of the bills have been blocked from consideration by the democratic minority, these bills are now available for review and have gone through a transparent process – something that has not happened in years.
Our priority as the majority has been to return to regular order, where committees review legislation and advance it to the floor. Nowhere is that more important than in the appropriations process and while the intransigence in the minority will likely lead to the consolidation of these bills later this year, the fact that they have been developed in the open is critical for the public process.
The return to regular order in the Senate has allowed Committee Chairs to go to work. When I assumed the Chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee I set an ambitious agenda. I asked my ranking member Senator Maria Cantwell from Washington to set aside partisanship and work with me to update our nation’s energy policies.
Our nation’s energy policies have not been updated in almost 9 years. Think about that for a moment, in 2007 the United States was building LNG import terminals, modern fracking technology was just beginning to be deployed and the distributed generation of electricity was still a small scale issue in isolated markets.
As Chair, I know I could have passed a bill from committee that included my biggest priorities like revenue sharing and ANWR – but without bipartisan support it would have failed to advance or the President would have vetoed it. Similarly, Senator Cantwell could have introduced a bill that reflected solely her priorities and it would have failed to pass the committee because I couldn’t have supported it. Instead of gridlock, I asked her to work with me to identify the areas we could agree on and to advance those through the process.
Together our staff held dozens of listening sessions, including several here in Alaska and we thoughtfully built a bill that today includes provisions from more than 80 Senators. This spring, the Energy Policy Modernization Act passed the Senate on a vote of 85-12 and just before we broke for the state work period the Senate agreed to go to conference with the House on the bill.
As the Chair of the Senate Energy Committee, I will Chair that conference and my goal is to continue the bipartisan process I started by delivering a bill that becomes a law. That has been my goal from the beginning: to enact policy not to simply generate press releases.
While the energy bill does not open ANWR, it does contain critical revisions to authorize LNG exports and permitting reforms for an Alaska LNG project. It includes provisions recognizing that hydro is a renewable energy and contains important new programs to help improve microgrids which will help improve the energy landscape in Alaska.
It includes new financing mechanisms for energy infrastructure that could unleash investment across Alaska in new transmission, generation and efficiency projects to offset the decline in state dollars that are available. It contains key provisions to support the development of critical minerals so that Alaska’s mineral industry can continue to provide not just the rare earth elements America’s manufacturing sector needs, but things like the silver and lead every modern automobile depends on.
The energy bill contains provisions that cover a wide range of technologies from renewable to non-renewable and includes the Bipartisan Sportsmen’s bill that will improve access for hunting and fishing in Alaska and protect our outdoor heritage.
But perhaps the piece of the bill I am the most proud of is that it repeals outdated sections of law, unworkable mandates and unnecessary reports. The bill includes a repealer section because I know that good policy isn’t just about enacting good laws, but also getting rid of bad ones.
Speaking of bad laws, although we have been unsuccessful at repealing Obamacare, we have managed to delay implementation of the Cadillac tax that threatened so many of Alaska’s employers and union plans with a terrible tax that simply adds cost. This tax will affect not just the business community, but almost every public employer in the state.
How can the state, school districts and municipalities address their budget challenges if they get hit with a tax on their “Cadillac” health plans? The very term is offensive. We know that in here in Alaska a “Cadillac plan” is more of a Buick due to the high cost of care in Alaska. Thank you to the Chamber for your tireless advocacy on this issue and the support you have shown the delegation for our efforts to ensure that Alaska, which is already suffering, doesn’t feel the death blow the Cadillac tax will be for our employers.
While we were not able to permanently delay implementation of the Cadillac Tax we were able to make some key provisions of the tax code permanent. Most importantly the section 179 small business expensing that allows your businesses to deduct up to $500,000 a year for the purchase of equipment. Getting a permanent extension of this tax provision is critical for small businesses and will encourage the type of spending in new equipment that circulates through the economy.
After 10 years of dealing with the unworkable No Child Left Behind, we passed bipartisan education reform, returning control from D.C. to the local communities of our children’s education to local school districts, parents, business leaders, tribal leaders, and educators who are best able to ensure our children are fully prepared to succeed in Alaska and compete in a global economy.
And I am working with my colleagues to do the same for the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, which supports schools’ efforts to train young Alaskans to take jobs in Alaska’s industries.
And as the proud mother of a small businessman, I fully understand how rewarding it is to see our children step into, and lead our economy. This year, my son Matt has taken over Verne’s pasta business and all of the challenges that come with a small business. You may have seen him recently at the farmer’s markets trying to expand and experimenting with new ideas.
Like other Alaskans, he is innovating. And doing it in the face of all of the uncertainty Alaska faces.
Watching him I feel an added connection to the challenges Alaska faces. I get up every day and together with Dan and Don, fight to ensure the federal side of Alaska’s economy is strong and that the federal government is working for Alaska.
While we need a partner in the White House, since we assumed control of the Senate in 2105 we are making progress and standing up for Alaska. We have repealed No Child Left Behind so that our school districts have greater control over our children’s education and are reminding the federal government that “no more” really means “no more.”
By strengthening our military, supporting our veterans, modernizing our energy policy, fighting for access, prioritizing federal spending and investing in infrastructure we are sowing the seeds for spring.
Yes, Alaska has challenges and our future is uncertain; it always has been and always will be. But so long as we have our resources, our strategic position on the globe and an innovative people making it work, Alaska will remain the most exceptional state in our exceptional country.
Thank you again for honoring me with this award, for your support and your efforts every day for our future.