Don’t panic over Trump’s budget, Murkowski says

President Donald Trump White House photo)

The White House today released an outline of President Trump’s first budget. As expected, the document calls for cutting government programs to offset a big increase in defense spending. The budget cuts would hit Alaska hard — if Congress were to adopt them.

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But Sen. Lisa Murkowski wants you to know that Congress is not going to pass this budget.

“This is the president’s request,” Murkowski told reporters. “It is not a budget that Congress is going to enact.”

That’s the case every year. The Constitution gives Congress the national purse strings. Murkowski said she’s been reminding her staff of that, because alarmed Alaskans are already contacting her office.

“There is plenty in this budget request to get very upset about. Because these are priorities that, for us, in a high-cost, cold, remote state mean a lot,” Murkowski said.

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File photo by Skip Gray/360 North

The budget would eliminate Essential Air Service and LIHEAP, Low-Income Home Energy Assistance, two programs that send millions of dollars to Alaska each year. It would stop funding for the Denali Commission for rural infrastructure. Trump’s budget would also defund an EPA program that last year provided $20 million to build water and wastewater projects in Alaska Native villages, where thousands of homes still lack running water and residents have to haul their waste in buckets.

And yet the budget also said it provides “robust funding for critical drinking and wastewater infrastructure.” It said the spending levels reflect the president’s “ongoing commitment to infrastructure repair and replacement.”

Murkowski said an Alaska village can’t compete with places like Flint, Michigan in federal programs, because an agency is likely to apply a simple cost-benefit analysis.

“When you do that, Alaska always loses, because our costs are high and the numbers of people that you’re serving is low,” Murkowski said.

Murkowski said she knows EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt understands the need to fund Alaska village water projects, because he raised the subject with her in a meeting before his confirmation vote.

“So we’re going to keep him to his word on that,” Murkowski said. “Too important.”

Murkowski serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee, and she chairs the subcommittee that writes the EPA budget. She pointed out that Pruitt and the cabinet secretaries are still assembling their teams. She said this budget may have been written by people who aren’t familiar with all the programs.

“And if you don’t know exactly what (the programs) do, and how helpful and beneficial they are, it might be easy to say, ‘Well, we’ll just rid of that one. We’ll just take that one off the books. We’ll zero it out for now until somebody says otherwise,'” Murkowski said. “And my sense is that’s some of what we’re dealing with right now.”

Murkowski is also reminding her staff that the 53-page document the White House released isn’t even the president’s real budget. The fuller version is expected in late April. In the meantime, Murkowski said her office is collecting stories from Alaskans about how they’d be affected if particular programs were to be cut or eliminated.

Of things she likes in the document, Murkowski named the increase in spending to restore military forces, which she says may mean the 425th Brigade Combat Team at JBER will be kept whole.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, in a written statement, praised the increase in defense spending but said some of the budget cuts fall too heavily on rural communities.

Alaska Congressman Don Young issued a statement, too, and he put it bluntly: “This budget isn’t going anywhere.” Congress, he noted, sets spending.