Wrangell Sentinel -

By James Brooks
Alaska Beacon 

Murkowski tells legislators to focus on much more than just the dividend

 


In her annual address to the Alaska Legislature, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski urged state lawmakers to avoid spending too much time on the amount of this year’s Permanent Fund dividend and to focus on problems causing people to move out of the state.

For a decade, the number of people moving out of the state has exceeded the number of people moving into Alaska. Only the addition of new births has caused the state’s population to plateau, rather than continue to fall.

“They’re counting on us to have a vision and to push that vision, whether for resources, housing, child care, workforce development, transportation or another big idea that can shape the state for future generations, a generation that stays instead of leaving,” said Murkowski, who won reelection in November.

Afterward, Murkowski said she worried that she might have overstepped her bounds by intruding as a U.S. senator onto issues controlled by state lawmakers, but she said she feels a variety of problems — child care, transportation, housing, workforce shortages and economic development — need state attention and can’t be solved through federal aid alone.

She also said a top priority is ensuring that the Legislature includes in its budget the funds needed to secure all of the federal dollars available for the Alaska Marine Highway System.

Murkowski was instrumental in bringing nearly $300 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation to the ferry system this year through the federal infrastructure bill. But to qualify, the state must promise to provide millions of dollars in its own budget. Gov. Mike Dunleavy is proposing an untested approach to use passenger and vehicle fare receipts to fulfill the federal match requirement rather than using money from the state’s own accounts.

“We have an unprecedented opportunity to refloat our ferry system. This is our shot. This is your lifeline. Please grab it,” she said to lawmakers.

Murkowski, who grew up in Southeast Alaska, including Wrangell, took on a tone that was at times pleading and at other moments admonishing.

She told lawmakers that the lack of child care options, for example, is having a detrimental effect on federal efforts to bring more military infrastructure to the state.

“We hear from the Coast Guard as well: Without child care options, the Coast Guard is not going to look to Alaska for new vessels,” she said.

“I would urge you: Do what you can here by putting this issue firmly on the agenda for the 33rd Legislature.”

The senator also talked about the ongoing political battle over the Permanent Fund dividend.

Since 2016, the amount of the PFD has been the Legislature’s largest annual struggle. The single largest expense in the state budget, the dividend overshadows all other discussions. With many legislators saying that tax increases are off the table and with no large savings account available, budget discussions have become an annual tug-of-war between the dividend and other priorities, like funding for K-12 schools or public facilities construction such as schools.

“I’ll just say it: If this Legislature spends the whole 33rd legislative agenda focusing on how much Alaskans are going to be getting for a Permanent Fund dividend — we miss everything,” Murkowski said.

Reactions to the speech from lawmakers ranged from enthusiasm to tepid acceptance. Rep. Louise Stutes, a Kodiak Republican who has long championed the state’s ferry system, called the speech “fabulous.” But more conservative members of the chamber were slow to clap at Murkowski’s pronouncements.

“She didn’t say, ‘You must do this.’ I heard the conditional voice,” said House Majority Leader Dan Saddler, an Eagle River Republican. “I didn’t hear any directives. She’s smart enough to know she can’t make us do anything.”

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization, at Alaskabeacon.com. The Anchorage Daily News contributed to the reporting for this story.

 

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