U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski visited the Kenai Peninsula on Wednesday. In between visiting the Alaska Municipal League summer conference, hearing an update from fire crews on the Swan Lake Fire and attending the Jr. Classic at the Kenai River, Murkowski sat down with the Clarion to share her thoughts on issues facing the state and area.
Permanent fund dividend
While the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend is a state issue, Murkowski said she’s been paying attention to ongoing conversations regarding this year’s dividend and the future of the fund. She said she wants to ensure Alaskans have dividends into the future.
“This is about us as Alaskans being able to share the benefits of these resources that we’ve been blessed with,” Murkowski said. “Making sure we have a sustainable dividend is important to me.”
As a receiver of the PFD since its inception, Murkowski said she recognizes the good the annual check has done, both to her family and other Alaskans. She said the dividend helped her family create a nest egg that allowed her to provide an education to her children, who are now out of college. She also said the dividend has clear benefits for Alaskans with lower incomes and who live a subsistence lifestyle.
But, she said she’s been disappointed in some of the recent conversations around the dividend that she’s heard among Alaskans.
“I feel that we have gotten to this point where it is more about ‘me and my dividend’, not about making sure our state is being cared for,” Murkowski said. “We’re having important discussions now. These discussions have gone on over the years. I have been really disappointed in some of the conversations I have heard among Alaskans where it just seemed that the tone was more one of ‘what I want’ rather than ‘what we need as a state.’”
Murkowski said she’s encouraging state lawmakers and Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration to think about Alaska’s future and not just individual needs.
On July 30, the Environmental Protection Agency withdrew from a decision made under the Obama administration in 2014 that restricted the use of the Pebble Deposit Area as a disposal site for dredged or fill material associated with mining the deposit. In a press release, the EPA stated that the Proposed Determination from 2014 was issued under section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act and was based on three hypothetical scenarios for the mine site, each of which was different than the permit application submitted to the Corps for review in December 2017.
The action does not approve Pebble’s permit application, but it still raised concerns from environmental groups seeking to protect the fish populations of nearby Bristol Bay from contaminants in the water. Conversely, the EPA’s decision received positive feedback from developers involved in the project, who have argued that the 2014 decision preemptively “vetoed” any chance of a Pebble Mine before plans had been submitted.
Murkowski said that while she believes the EPA made the right decision in withdrawing from the 2014 Proposed Determination, the stakeholders of Pebble Mine have consistently fallen short in meeting the standards that the Army Corps of Engineers has laid out during the permitting process.
After reading the extensive concerns from the EPA, the state and the Department of the Interior about the Pebble project, Murkowski said she’s not sure how or if Pebble will be able to address those concerns.
“If Pebble is not able to address (the concerns) than no permit should issue,” Murkowski said. “You’ve got people who are very passionate on both sides. I think the greatest passion is on the side of those who oppose Pebble because they are concerned about fisheries.”
Murkowski said she shares those Bristol Bay fishery concerns.
“I’ve spent a lot of time out in the Bristol Bay region,” she said. “It’s an ecosystem that is unique. It is the host of the most extraordinary fisheries in the world, so the care that we must show for that resource is pretty substantial. Making sure we’ve got a strong process is important. Making sure we’re doing right by all of our resources and understanding the science and the data that will support the ultimate conclusion here.”
While the EPA shouldn’t preemptively shut down a project, Murkowski said, Pebble needs to “prove up” their project to show they can do it safely with no significant negative impact.
Endangered Species Act
Earlier this week, changes were made to the Endangered Species Act, regarding sections four and seven of the act. Section four deals with adding and removing species from the act’s protections, and designating critical habitat. Section seven of the act covers consultations with federal agencies. Revisions from this week seek to clarify standards for delisting and reclassifying species and ensures all species proposed for delisting or reclassification receive the same analysis used to determine if a species meets statutory definitions of a threatened or endangered species. The change will only impact future threatened species’ listings or reclassifications from endangered to threatened status.
While Murkowski said she doesn’t know enough of the details about how the changes will be implemented, she said it’s fair to look critically at the Endangered Species Act. She said a species can make it on the Endangered Species Act list, but it is almost impossible to get that species off the list.
She said the statute is legitimate and important, but can be used in a way that was not intended.
“The effort to list something or anything in an effort to stop development, because they are seeking to delay inhibit or preempt or just kill a project — that’s not what the (Endangered Species Act) was designed for,” Murkowski said. “I’m going to take a more critical look at this.”
On June 28, U.S. Attorney General William Barr declared a law enforcement emergency in rural Alaska, and made more than $10 million available for the state to address public safety concerns in Alaska’s Native villages.
Murkowski, who hosted Barr on his trip to Alaska, said she was thankful he came to visit. Barr visited Anchorage then made his way to Interior Alaska and Galena, Bethel and then into some of the state’s most rural communities.
“I could see this man’s head just kind of spinning,” Murkowski said. “He said when we were out there ‘I’ve been given all the briefings, I read the statistics, I’ve been a part of conversations in Anchorage but now I’m feeling it with my heart.’ He had his eyes and heart open to what we have just come to almost accept in this state — that one in three communities don’t have any level of public safety presence.”
She said work and collaboration on the issue is continuing at the federal level, with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of Justice. She said the state should work to collaborate with federal agencies to combat rural safety issues.
“I was very discouraged to see that on the same day attorney general made his announcement … to the state, the governor chose to make a $3 million reduction to public safety, citing we just can’t hire enough VPSOs (Village Public Safety Officers),” Murkowski said. “Part of the problem is we need to pay those VPSOs. Part of the problem is you need to train these law enforcement people. We can help with that on the federal side but you’ve got to have that state participation.”
The problem with rural safety can’t be solved with just money, she said.
“A lot of times the (tribal police officer) is called out and is breaking up a domestic violence dispute between his relatives,” Murkowski said. “He’s put in a position where he has to make hard calls against his family and friends. That’s hard to do sometimes and they can’t pay you enough to do that.”
She said it’s important to make sure village officers have the training and tools to do their job and that federal dollars need to be leveraged through state opportunities.
“It’s a challenge, but I think if we all start rowing together we’re going to make some headway,” Murkowski said. “The opioid issue coming at the same time we’re dealing with budgetary concerns and difficulties in recruitment and retention is creating an awful perfect storm.”
When asked if she would be introducing any Alaska-related legislation after the Senate recess, Murkowski said she’s been working on several bills that have both national and state scope.
She said she’s working on energy reform legislation, which helps in a state with high costs for energy production.
“The more we can be doing to reduce (cost), whether it’s focusing on micro grids, whether it’s building our greater hydro capacity and capability — these are things that help us considerably,” Murkowski said.
A bill allowing offshore activity revenue sharing was just introduced by Murkowski and Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-LA, she said.
There is no offshore activity in federal waters at the moment, but when there is, the bill will tee Alaska up for an opportunity to share in revenues made from the infrastructure in federal waters, she said.
“We don’t have a mechanism in place that would allow for the state to receive any of those revenues as part of revenue sharing,” Murkowski said.
Addressing Alaska’s high cost of health care is another project Murkowski has been spending time on, including stopping surprise medical billing and increasing the number of individuals working in rural areas where there are many health care shortages.
“Our health care costs are some of the highest in the nation and we have a real challenge in getting providers,” Murkowski said.
Gun law reform
Almost two weeks ago, two mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, killed 31 people. The U.S. House has proposed legislation that is designed to strengthen background checks for gun sales. The Senate has yet to address the legislation or similar legislation, but Murkowski said it’s her understanding that Americans can expect to see an effort in addressing background check and red flag initiatives.
“I fully anticipate this will be part of the legislative agenda when we return in September,” Murkowski said. “I can see the Senate taking up a bill … I do think it will be an important part, a critical part of our legislative agenda this fall.”