Alaska News Nightly: July 8, 2011

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Alaska Congressional Delegation Not Included in Budget Talks

Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC

In less than a month, the nation will hit its legal limit on borrowing money. The U.S. risks defaulting on its debt, and might not be able to pay its bills on August 2. So Congress and the President are in talks about striking a deal to raise the debt limit but also cut spending. The next big summit is Sunday at the White House. But Alaska’s delegation is not at the table.

Congressman Don Young says he’s got an idea to fill the nation’s piggy bank: development. He says more oil drilling, coal, and natural gas will bring in tax dollars.  But of all the things being discussed in the debt talks, Young’s plan is not on the table. Not even among his fellow House Republicans.

“They’re not even doing it. That’s why I’m a little frustrated.  I told them, I’m only hearing cut, cut, cut, I don’t hear produce, produce, produce. Cause if you produce you employ and have more taxes under the present system. You have a better way to balance the budget. You cannot cut your way into prosperity. That’s impossible.”

Young may be the second-longest serving Republican in the House, but he’s nowhere near the bargaining table, and doesn’t have the ear of House Speaker John Boehner.

“Unfortunately what’s being talked about is not information the average member is privy to. And it’s really the leadership between the President. The Senate gets all the interest.”

But over in the Senate, the conventional wisdom is that there are two big players, and neither are in that body: Boehner representing the Republicans, and President Obama for the Democrats. Senator Mark Begich may belong to the “other party,” but he and Representative Young often agree on development issues, and Begich says the Congressman is right.

“They’re all caught in this moment of we’ve got to cut our way out of this. You can’t do that. Take Congressman Young, he’s been around a long time so he’s seen the big picture.”

Begich is part of a group trying to hammer out a respectable budget plan: Senate Democrats on the Budget Committee have been toiling for months. But their work – and all other plans – are taking a back seat to the talks at the White House. And as Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski points out, that’s an exclusive group.

“It’s difficult because the table is such a small one right now. And that is the reality of these negotiations.

So Alaskans might wonder how they’re represented as the nation’s political leaders hammer out a hugely influential fiscal deal. And where are the centrists?

“Your question is a good one, about where the voice is. And I think in fairness it is from each one of us who engages one on one with other colleagues, with other members, and you try to build that critical mass of concern about the direction that we are going.”

One of the non-government groups working to come up with a compromise on the budget is the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. Steve Bell is senior director of its Economic Policy Project, and spent his career working in banking and in Congress, including on the Senate Budget Committee.

“Sadly bipartisanship doesn’t have enough votes right now in the House nor in the Senate. Let’s take Lisa Murkowski who I know well, she has a lot to contribute. But the nature of the Republican caucus, the very narrow group of people who are allowed to speak for the caucus
has in fact made it very difficult.”

Bell blames partisanship as the reason talks among a group called the Gang of Six stalled out.  It was comprised of a trio of Senate Republicans and three Democrats, but with vastly divergent views.

“I think in large part they collapsed because they didn’t expand enough to include the Begiches, or the Murkowskis, or moderate people from Louisiana from both sides of the aisle. Arkansas’ on both sides of the aisle.”

Bell worries that the process of only bringing in a few key players is affecting the way negotiations are brokered in Washington.

“So what has happened is not an exclusion not of the far left and right as was happened when I was in the Senate, it’s an exclusion of the moderate, common sense centrists.”

Senator Murkowski says she and the rest of the Alaska delegation may not be invited to the high profile White House meetings, but she believes there are still ways to forge alliances. Because in the end, every member still has a vote.

“But in fairness there has not been an invitation to have one Republican, one Democrat and those folks who might be identified in the middle to come and broker the deal. We’re making our voices heard in other venues.”

So this weekend while the White House talks are underway, Murkowski will be in Alaska. Senator Begich will be returning from a work-trip to Croatia.  Congressman Young will be in the Washington area, but he’ll have to wait til afterward like the rest of us to find out what

Murkowski Voices Concerns over EPA and BOEMRE

Heather Aronno, APRN – Anchorage

Senator Lisa Murkowski attended a presentation in Anchorage today, put on by Shell Oil officials to discuss the company’s 2012 exploration and oil spill prevention and response plans. The company is hoping to drill several wells in the Arctic Ocean next summer.

Murkowski voiced her concerns about possible loss of funding to offshore oversight organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement. The Appropriations committee released a proposed funding bill Wednesday that makes significant cuts to both agencies.

“I need the EPA to work. I need the federal agencies to work. We need BOEMRE to work and do their job, and in order for them to do their job, we need to make sure that they have the tools, the people, the budget. So it’s this balancing act that we’re involved with right now.”

Senator Murkowski is critical about the efficiency of the permitting process. She says it’s much faster to obtain air-pollution permits in the Gulf of Mexico. That’s due, in part, to cooperation between the industry and oversight organizations like BOEMRE. She says the system is different in Alaska.

“It isn’t designed to help facilitate the level of permitting for offshore that we have seen for three or four decades now in the Gulf. So I’m looking at this and saying ‘why does this have to be, why are we reinventing the wheel in Alaska?'”

Environmental groups have been critical that the federal government is moving too quickly in the process toward allowing offshore drilling in Alaska. They’re concerned not enough is known about cleaning up large oil spills in arctic waters.

Anchorage Files Lawsuit Over Knik Bridge Project

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

The municipality of Anchorage has filed a lawsuit against the federal government over the proposed Knik Bridge project, also known as KABATA, which would link the Matanuska Susitna Borough to the city.

City spokesperson Sarah Erkmann says Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan wants to keep the city end of the bridge in Anchorage away from the Port of Anchorage

The lawsuit seeks to have the court require the Federal Highway Administration to set aside its decision made last December in favor of the bridge project. The suit asks the court to vacate the Record of Decision and send it back to the Federal Highway Administration for further investigation.

Senator Linda Menard, a strong supporter of the KABATA project, recently met with New York investors on the project. Menard could not be reached for comment Friday.

Northern Waters Task Force Meets This Week

Laureli Kinneen, KNOM – Nome

The Northern Waters Task Force held a series of meetings in Kotzebue and Nome this week.  The task force was formed during the 2010 legislative session and is comprised of a mix of legislators, municipal leaders and heads of state and federal organizations. Today, they met in Nome and considered the issue of a new port in northern Alaska.

UAF Teams-Up to Research Native Childhood Obesity Prevention

Daysha Eaton, KDLG – Dillingham

A research project aimed at developing childhood obesity prevention strategies in Native communities is getting off the ground at University of Alaska Fairbanks.  Researchers are partnering with scientists from colleges across the Pacific.

This Week on AK: Fairbanks Cold Case Attracts Interest

Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock, APRN Contributor

This week on AK, we delve into a cold case from interior Alaska…

On July 8, 1999, eight-year-old Durga Owens was reported missing from his family’s remote homestead out the Steese highway north of Fairbanks. After a day and a half search his body was recovered on the hillside near his home, and investigators ruled the death a homicide. Twelve years later, investigators say there is still no resolution in the case, and the Durga Owens’ murder remains in cold case status.