Lawmakers from Southeast Alaska reacted positively to Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s address to the Alaska State Legislature Thursday, a speech in which Murkowski sounded familiar themes about energy policy, budget cuts and Alaska’s often strained relationship with the federal government.
Alaska’s senators address the Legislature annually, and Murkowski, the state’s senior senator, was in Juneau Thursday to speak at the Alaska State Capitol and other venues about her work in the U.S. Senate.
House Minority Leader Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, recalled Murkowski’s own service in the Alaska House of Representatives, prior to her appointment to the Senate in 2002.
“Lisa — Sen. Murkowski — sat right in front of me for four years,” Kerttula said. “And she is a thoughtful, moderate person. I took a lot of interesting things out of what she said today.”
One of the subjects of the speech Murkowski spoke most forcefully about was the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recommendation against allowing an access road to be built between King Cove and a nearby all-weather airport at Cold Bay.
Murkowski and the other two members of Alaska’s congressional delegation argue that the access road is needed to give the small fishing community on the Alaska Peninsula year-round access to the outside world for medical treatment and other emergency situations, while the USFWS has expressed concern that a road could disrupt bird habitats in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
“We’re talking about a 10-mile, single-lane gravel road that’s not going to be open for commercial use,” Murkowski said, accusing the Department of the Interior of having “prioritized conservation over the health and safety of the people … who live there in King Cove.”
According to Murkowski, some 25 King Cove villagers are traveling to Washington, D.C., next week to meet with outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
“It is unfortunate that this is the sixth time that villagers from King Cove have had to travel back to Washington in the hopes that they might be able to meet with the secretary,” Murkowski said, to murmurs. “Not good.”
Murkowski’s remarks on Izembek and King Cove had legislators interrupting her speech more than once to applaud and pound their desks in agreement.
Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, brought up Izembek immediately when asked for his thoughts on the speech.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me,” Egan said of federal opposition to the access road, calling it “stupid” that King Cove residents have had to travel to Washington, D.C., five times already without success.
Kerttula highlighted Izembek as well. “I agreed with (Murkowski) on the Izembek road, and I’ve written my own letter to the secretary of the interior about that, and I feel the same way she does about it,” said Kerttula. “That was probably the thing that struck me the most about it.”
Murkowski is the ranking member on the Senate Energy Committee, and she devoted part of her speech Thursday to energy policy. She talked about a report she released recently entitled “Energy 2020: A Vision for America’s Energy Future,” which she said, to appreciative laughter from the chamber, is predicated on the idea that “energy is good.”
“It’s got all kinds of good ideas,” Murkowski said, “I wrote it — of course it has good ideas.”
Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau, said she was pleased to hear about Murkowski’s activity on energy policy.
“I was really interested in her energy plan and her desire to reframe the conversation, the national conversation, around energy in a positive way, and talking about how important it is to bring energy developments home,” said Muñoz. “I feel that, based on what she was saying, that she’s really central to that conversation, and to redirecting priorities toward domestic energy and not foreign energy sources.”
Murkowski said she is working with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chairman of the Energy Committee, to realize some of the ideas from her report.
“One area where we have great agreement is with hydropower,” said Murkowski. “We’re collaborating on some ideas to promote this resource. We’re looking forward to advancing legislation this year.”
That caught the attention of Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka. His hometown of Sitka, like many communities in Southeast Alaska, relies heavily on hydroelectric power.
“I was excited to hear that she’s working on energy legislation that relates to hydro,” Kreiss-Tomkins said. “The concern a lot of Southeast communities have is that hydro isn’t considered renewable for purposes of federal funding when hydro in Southeast is totally renewable and environmental impacts are slim to none. So I’m really looking forward to hearing what comes of that work with Sen. Wyden. It could make a difference in a lot of communities in Southeast.”
Muñoz agreed. “I was very impressed with her work on hydropower legislation,” said Muñoz. “Her efforts to include hydropower in renewable energy definitions in the federal code is incredibly important for Alaska. I expect that she’ll continue to make progress on that.”
Another Democratic senator, Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, was mentioned in Murkowski’s speech as a partner on energy issues.
Murkowski said she and Landrieu are preparing a bill that would require the federal government to share 27.5 percent of revenues from offshore power generation — including offshore wind farms and other “clean energy” applications as well as offshore oil and gas drilling — with state governments.
“What this proposal means for the country is more energy, plain and simple,” said Murkowski, “More energy, and for us here in Alaska, certainly, new revenue.”
“I was really heartened by the fact that she’s working across the aisle,” Kerttula said. “I mean, to be working with Mary Landrieu, be working with … Wyden, and then of course talking about working with the vice president — that’s a great style that works well for Alaska, and I was very heartened by that.”
“I’m glad that she has teamed up with a Democrat on energy issues,” said Egan, who agreed with Murkowski’s characterization of Wyden as a senator who distinguishes between Alaska’s energy situation and the situation in the Lower 48.
Murkowski spoke soberly about impending across-the-board spending cuts, often referred to as “sequestration,” scheduled to take effect on March 1.
The cuts were originally devised as a poison pill unpalatable to most members of Congress as a mechanism to force the House, Senate and White House to work together on deficit reduction. However, with the deadline approaching in less than two weeks, there appears to be little movement in Washington, D.C., to avert the cuts.
“Sequestration is likely to be our new reality,” Murkowski warned. While she said spending cuts are “inevitable” due to the national debt and escalating budget deficits, she said she would prefer to see “targeted” reductions.
Asked during a press conference after her speech why she believes there is little indication Congress and the administration of President Barack Obama will come together in time to avoid the sequestration cuts, Murkowski answered, “I think there’s some who see political advantage to allowing it to move forward.”
“To advance reductions … in an indiscriminate way, in a manner that really hurts families, hurts individuals, just so that we can kind of make our point here that this is how we’re going to get cuts, or this is how we’re going to get taxes … that’s not how you govern,” said Murkowski. “That’s just not how you govern.”
Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, said Alaska should prepare for the effects of the budget cuts.
“I think that we better heed her warning,” Wilson said of Murkowski. “The future of the United States as a whole, it looks to me like things are going to get worse before they get better, and Alaska better plan to probably not see as much from the feds.”
For Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, as well, the impending cuts were a main takeaway from Murkowski’s speech.
“I think the sequestration is going to be a mess for the state to deal with,” said Stedman. “From listening to her today, it sounds like pretty much a certainty that’s going to be the issue, and I think once it hits the states, the populace is going to get kind of restless. And that hopefully will put some pressure on the extreme positions of both parties to get to a middle-ground resolution.”
Murkowski also took questions from lawmakers after her speech, including one from Muñoz.
Muñoz referred to a goal Gov. Sean Parnell set during his State of the State speech last month to increase Alaska’s high school graduation rate to 90 percent and asked Murkowski what can be done to achieve it.
Murkowski replied, “It starts not only before high school, it starts before middle school. It starts in elementary. And so how we are focusing on our very early learners and making sure that they get that help that they need to stay on track through their full academic career is so important.”
• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 586-1821 or at email@example.com.