JUNEAU — Federal spending and resource development drive much of Alaska’s economy but both are threatened as perhaps never before, Alaska’s senior U.S. senator said Thursday.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, in an annual address to the Alaska Legislature, said years of deficit spending have generated unprecedented debt that jeopardizes the federal government’s ability to meet its obligations. At the same time, she said years of government overreach have limited access to resource development in the state, which could help reduce Alaska’s reliance on federal funds.
The Republican, re-elected in 2010, offered a harsh critique of Washington, saying Americans have witnessed an atmosphere of possibly unprecedented “dysfunction and partisanship in Congress that has compromised our ability to govern.” She said the list of accomplishments out of the U.S. Senate over the past year is relatively short, and Congress has been “unable to muster the comprehensive solutions that this country demands.”
“We have had some partial victories at the federal level but really given the enormous challenges that we face, this process and progress is inadequate,” she said. “And that’s why I’d like to use this occasion today to renew our partnership in discussions that need to take place in overcoming what I consider to be the biggest obstacles to growing Alaska’s economy.”
Murkowski said the budget situation in Washington is bound to get worse before it gets better. March 1 is the deadline for broad, automatic government spending cuts. Murkowski said cuts are unavoidable, but the question is how those cuts should be made. She said she is concerned about programs like Head Start and Indian Health Services, and advocated a balanced approach that includes targeted cuts and an overhaul of the tax code.
She expressed her frustration in a news conference with reporters about the looming deadline for immediate cuts, known as sequestration. Asked about the apparent lack of urgency surrounding sequestration, she said she thinks “there are some who see there’s political advantage to allowing it to move forward.”
She questioned advancing “indiscriminate” cuts that hurt families and individuals “just so that we can make our point here, that ‘this is how we’re going to get cuts’ or ‘this is how we’re going to get taxes,’ in the meantime, we’ve got people whose lives are uncertain. They don’t know what it is that they should be doing. That’s not how you govern,” she said.
In her speech, Murkowski said Alaska can make a solid case for federal funding, noting the state’s demographics: strong military presence, large Alaska Native population, large numbers of federal employees.
But she said the state needs to be prepared for a reduction in federal dollars, prioritize funding requests and evaluate what the state can do on its own. And she said the congressional delegation and state must jointly oppose cuts that would most severely affect Alaskans, such as proposed cuts to national defense.
She said now, perhaps more than ever, the state and congressional delegation need to work closely together.
Murkowski spoke on the high cost of energy, saying families in some rural communities are spending up to 47 percent of their budgets on energy — so much more than families in other parts of the country that people have a hard time understanding the challenge Alaskans face.
She said the fastest progress on the energy front can be made at the state level but also spoke to the U.S. energy plan she recently released. She also talked about the potential that she believes exists for the state to export liquefied natural gas overseas to Asia.
“But overshadowing all of this, overshadowing, really, our future prosperity here in the state, is a more insidious problem that we’re fighting every day,” she said. “And that’s what we’re seeing with federal overreach. Alaska bears a disproportionate share of that growing national burden, both in terms of costs imposed and opportunities lost.”
Murkowski drew applause when she vowed to address a recent federal decision rejecting a plan to build a road through a wildlife refuge that would have given villagers in the remote King Cove better access to medical care. The decision has drawn criticism from other members of the state’s congressional delegation, as well as state lawmakers.
“We are talking about the safety of Alaskans,” she said, to applause, “... and if there wasn’t a simple fix, maybe we wouldn’t be having this argument.”