Some Alaska programs face cuts under Bush budget

New budget would slash funds from Alaska Native education and the Denali Commission

Posted: Tuesday, February 04, 2003

ANCHORAGE - President Bush's proposed $2.23 billion budget for fiscal year 2004 would cut millions from the Denali Commission and from spending on Alaska Native education but would add money for missile interceptors at Fort Greely and new oil lease sales on North Slope.

The budget also calls for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by anticipating federal revenues of $1.2 billion from lease sales. State Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, praised Bush for including revenue from the refuge.

"With the White House firmly behind the effort to open ANWR, I believe we are another step closer to making it a reality," she said.

Exploration of the refuge's coastal plain can't begin without Congress' approval.

The same is true for the budget. The president offers an annual spending blueprint, but then it goes to Congress. Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens often restores cuts the administration proposes to Alaska programs, and then some.

Stevens, an Alaska Republican, was reviewing Bush's 2004 budget and had no comment.

His appropriations aide, Lisa Sutherland, didn't sound disheartened by the proposed cuts to the Denali Commission, an independent agency Stevens created in 1998 to improve infrastructure and economic development in rural Alaska.

Its budget has grown over the years, starting with an initial appropriation of $20 million. It received $97 million from federal sources in 2002. The spending bills for this year are still in the hands of House and Senate negotiators, but Stevens has proposed about $103 million for the commission for the 2003 fiscal year. But in his 2004 plan, Bush would cut the Denali Commission back to $69 million. Sutherland, a senior Stevens aide, sees it as an excellent start.

"That's $69 million we don't have to fight for," she said. "It certainly makes it a lot easier for us - for the president to basically agree that this is a good program and it's doing good work."

Jeff Staser, co-chairman of the Denali Commission, said the Bush administration is treating the commission fairly in the face of rising national defense costs.

"We'll all feel that impact," Staser said. "At the same time, I think Alaska is well served by the delegation in bringing attention to the plight of some of the rural communities in Alaska."

If the Denali Commission does sustain the cut Bush proposes, it would take longer to meet the rural needs the agency identified, Staser said.

The president's plan also calls for cutting funding for Alaska Native Education Equity from $24 million in 2002 to $14 million. The program, created by Stevens, funds supplemental education services to Alaska Natives, including curriculum development, teacher training and recruitment and preschool instruction.

Sutherland said it is good that the president recognizes the need to improve Native education - and $14 million is a good start.

The revenue in Bush's plan from ANWR lease sales is a common budget feature when Republicans are in the White House. The president's budget assumes ANWR bonus bids totaling $2.4 billion would be paid in 2005. It assumes half would go to the state, even though many Alaskans insist the state should get the 90 percent it was promised at statehood.

The budget also includes an additional $425,000 to prepare for new oil leasing in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, and perhaps ANWR.

The president proposes spending $9.1 billion to begin fielding a missile defense shield with 10 land-based interceptors, six of which would be housed at Fort Greely in Alaska's Interior.

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