‘Minibus’ Bill Passes Senate

Alaska’s Senators say the bi-partisan passage on Tuesday of a slimmed-down bundle of spending bills is a good step for a Congress best known for gridlock. The $182-billion appropriations bill is called a “minibus” because it bites off a chunk of the federal budget, rather than trying to fund everything through an “omnibus” spending package.  Among the highlights say Alaska’s Senators are increases in funding for fishery stock assessments and to the Essential Air Service Program.

The mini-bus puts together three spending bills that tackle Agriculture, Commerce, and Transportation and Housing.  It does make cuts to local governments’ community development grants that help low-income communities.  And housing for the poor, law enforcement, and scientific research also take hits.

But Congress agreed in August that next fiscal year’s spending bills would be smaller… and that’s what this one delivers. Democratic Senator Mark Begich says $67 million for fishery stock assessments would mean better updated quota numbers. That’s an increase in spending by more than $15 million.

“For Alaska and for all fisheries, I mean the stock assessment is the critical piece that determines how much we can fish, what our minimum amounts are, and if you don’t do these accurate stock assessments, they have a direct impact in the amount of fish Alaskans can catch. And usually what happens is they lower the amounts that are available because they don’t’ have good stock assessments,” Begich said.

Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski says ensuring there’s enough money to make regular and good stock assessments was a big priority. She’s also touting money for complying with the Pacific Salmon Treaty with Canada, and for the FAA in the form of Airport Improvement Program funds, with an added $10 million going to upkeep and maintenance of the Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage.

And the mini-bus includes half a million dollars for a newly created National Clearinghouse on Sexual Assault of American Indian and Alaska Native Women.

Murkowski is also pleased at $143 million in funding for the Essential Air Service program – which only months ago was threatened with major cuts by other members of Congress.

“This is welcome news because not only were we able to survive the direct attacks that came at Essential Air Service, but we actually see an increase over the FY11 levels for EAS funding. This is going to be important for our Alaska airports.  We’ve got 40 airports in the state that see the benefits of Essential Air Services so this was an important win for us in Alaska,” Murkowski said.

The spending package passed the Senate 69 to 30, Murkowski and Begich both prefer this technique of tackling a few spending bills at a time rather than trying to pass one giant spending bill.

“The last thing we need as a Congress is to be dealing with a multi-thousand page omnibus appropriation bill that members just don’t know what’s included in it. By breaking it down to smaller legislative vehicles we can spend the time debating and amending and making a better work product,” Murkowski said.

Begich says biting off the smaller group of spending bills lets Senators examine them carefully and talk with one-another about their individual priorities.  He expects more to come in the next few weeks – but warns that there’s no time to waste.

“The challenge will be we’re running out of time before the end of the year.  We’ll have another which will be introduced shortly, then my guess is before year’s out we’ll have remainder in 1 block that will include defense funding.  That’s important obviously for Alaska,” Begich said.

Just because the mini-bus passed the Senate on Tuesday doesn’t guarantee it will become law. It has to go to conference with the House’s versions of spending bills, and receive the President’s approval.  But Alaska’s Senators say they hope Tuesday’s vote kick-started the process of hammering out spending agreements.

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