Federal budget requires Alaskan involvement to protect vital programs

Posted: Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Just as Alaskans and other Americans are tightening their belts and eliminating unnecessary spending in these tough economic times, President Barack Obama has proposed to do the same with the federal budget.

Unfortunately, some of the budget cuts proposed earlier this month show a lack of understanding of Alaska's unique needs by federal budget-writers. That's why I'll be working with members of Congress of both political parties in coming weeks to educate them about Alaska's key role in America's defense, about Third World conditions in much of rural Alaska and about continued recovery of West Coast salmon stocks.

Saying he was "ushering in a new era of responsibility," the president's $3.7 trillion budget for fiscal year 2010 proposes bold new investments to lift our economy out of recession, especially for education, health care and renewable energy. At the same time, the budget cuts taxpayer waste by eliminating duplicative programs or those that simply don't work.

The budget brings non-defense discretionary spending to the lowest level as a share of Gross Domestic Product since 1962, and is projected to cut the deficit in half by 2012.

There is much in the budget Alaskans should like, including:

• Growing the economy. The budget provides Making Work Pay tax cuts for 300,000 Alaska families of up to $800. To encourage economic growth, it eliminates capital gains taxes for some small businesses.

To address deteriorating roads and bridges, it establishes a national infrastructure bank to fund improvements. It invests $1 billion into expanding broadband Internet access, especially to rural areas.

• Improving schools. The president would make permanent the $2,500 American Opportunity Tax Credit for those already attending college. Some $40 million more would be available to strengthen student achievement in low-income areas and another $14 million invested in new teacher training and recruitment.

• Reducing health care costs. More than 209,000 Alaskans lack health insurance, while rising health care costs take $9,300 from the average Alaskan paycheck each year.

The president proposes an unprecedented $635 billion "down payment" on health care reform to reduce costs, boost quality, expand coverage and preserve the ability to choose your own doctor. The budget also helps make prescriptions more affordable and streamlines the approval of generics.

• Strengthen our military. President Obama recognizes the vital role Alaska plays in the nation's defense. His budget calls for massive new investments totaling $318 million into Alaska bases, including $200 million at Fairbanks' Fort Wainwright, $51 million at Anchorage's Fort Richardson, $40 million at Elmendorf Air Force Base and $14 million in Clear Air Force Station near Nenana.

Much of that funding is for Warrior Transition Units at Wainwright and Richardson and a new mental health clinic at Elmendorf, all to help care for Alaska's wounded warriors.

The budget calls for a nearly 3 percent pay raise for our servicemen and women and increases funding for veterans' health care and benefits by $25 billion, which will help Alaska's 75,000 veterans.

Despite these commendable investments, the administration's budget-writers propose to eliminate some essential services and programs in Alaska. Many of these have been proposed for reduction by previous presidents, so it's now up to those of us in Alaska's congressional delegation and other Alaskans to educate national policy-makers about our state's unique needs.

Here are the ill-advised cuts I'm focused on fixing:

• Rural Alaska needs. At a time when many rural villages face 50 percent or higher unemployment and skyrocketing energy costs, cuts to the Denali Commission, to Village Safe Water and for job training simply make no sense. From improving health care and small harbors to helping reduce energy costs, the innovative efforts of the Denali Commission should be expanded, not pared back.

• Missile defense. Fort Greely near Delta Junction is home to the vital ground-based missile defense system. The system is designed to intercept missiles bound for Alaska and other parts of North America launched by rogue nations.

Thirty of the missiles are scheduled for deployment by the end of 2009, and the Defense Department has proposed stopping then instead of deploying the full complement of 44 missiles. This is short sighted at best, especially when North Korea has demonstrated its ability to launch deadly weapons capable of hitting America.

• Salmon protection. Alaska has done an excellent job managing our wild salmon stocks but scientific research and habitat protection throughout the west coast states is threatened by a proposed budget provision that would lump the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund in with national efforts to protect endangered species.

I have joined with senators from Washington, Oregon, California and Idaho to oppose this and preserve the fund for salmon habitat and restoration.

Now is the time to let Alaskans' voice be heard as Congress takes up President Obama's budget, with both its good and bad news for Alaska.

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