Wide array of Alaska programs face elimination under president's proposed budget

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump's proposed budget would eliminate huge swaths of federal spending in Alaska, from water infrastructure grants to college tuition assistance.

The White House sent the long-awaited details of the president's fiscal year 2018 budget recommendation to Congress Tuesday, detailing $52 billion in cuts designed to match the same amount in new spending for the Department of Defense. Broken down, those cuts targeted smaller-dollar programs that the Trump administration said amount to irresponsible stewardship of Americans' tax dollars.

Members of Congress, the body constitutionally responsible for setting the nation's budget, responded with some approval and some eye-rolling, protesting cuts to beloved local programs to assist the poor and disadvantaged.

Alaska's congressional delegation was among them.

"I agree with the president's emphasis in this budget on economic growth, a strong national defense, developing our natural resources and balancing the budget," Murkowski said. "However, there are elements of this budget I strongly disagree with – especially the drastic cuts to programs intended to help the most vulnerable among us."

Murkowski, Sullivan and Alaska Gov. Bill Walker were quick to compliment the administration on its proposal to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.

[Opening ANWR to oil drilling is priority in Trump's proposed budget]

"The National Petroleum Reserve, the Beaufort and Chukchi seas and ANWR all hold significant promise for Alaska. We look forward to more positive news on the 1002 region in the days and weeks to come," Walker said.

"However, we are concerned about what some of the deep cuts, if sustained, would mean for crucial services – like air travel for rural residents and infrastructure assistance to villages," Walker said, pledging to continue working with the state's congressional delegation "to ensure Alaskans are protected."

Sullivan credited the Trump administration with retaining funding for efforts to combat opioid and heroin addictions, and boosting Defense spending, though he worried it wouldn't be enough.

Though the "president's budget proposal is an improvement and an increase over the severely depressed Obama-era defense budgets, and includes $170 million of military construction for Alaska, I remain concerned that – in an increasingly dangerous world – this budget proposal does not provide enough resources to really begin rebuilding our military," Sullivan said.

"As I have said before, it's important to remember that Congress holds the power of the purse, and will ultimately fund the federal government," he cautioned Tuesday.

Alaska Rep. Don Young had perhaps the strongest words on the proposed budget.

"I've served with nine Presidents – that's 45 budget proposals – and none of them really went anywhere," Young said in a statement late Tuesday. He called the proposal a "vision document" and suggested people not "get overly excited," as it was "dead in Congress before the ink was even dry."

A broad array of programs

The funding that would be lost to Alaskans if the Trump budget were enacted is broad in category and high in cost. The focus is on non-entitlement programs – meaning Social Security and Medicare are excluded. The budget assumes the passage of a House bill repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, and its associated cuts to Medicaid.

Alaska took in just short of $8 billion in federal funding in 2016, according to USAspending.gov. A great majority of that is unlikely to change: More than $2.2 billion came from the Department of Health and Human Services, $1.4 billion from the Social Security Administration and $1.26 billion from the Department of Defense. Those programs would remain mostly untouched under the Trump budget.

The programs cut often hit home in a more personal manner – making Congress less eager to trim their spending.

The Trump budget would eliminate funding for the Low Income Energy Assistance Program, under which more than 10,000 households in Alaska collectively received $10.2 million in 2016. The program helps people pay high home heating and cooling bills.

Alaskans also benefited from $1.6 million in spending on home weatherization retrofits in 2016, a program eliminated by the proposed budget.

The administration took a red pen to the Essential Air Service, an annual federal subsidy program that supports commercial air service in remote areas across Alaska. Under the Trump budget, 61 communities in Alaska would lose millions in annual contract subsidies.

Members of Alaska's congressional delegation have pledged to keep support for the Essential Air Service in the budget – an issue on which Rep. Young has been haggling with transportation committee leaders for months.

[Rural Alaska communities rely on this program for air travel. Now it might be going away.]

The Trump budget request also eliminates a Department of Agriculture program that funds water and waste programs in rural areas. In 2016, the program distributed $1.7 billion to 600 communities, including $38.9 million in 46 awards to Alaska communities.

A separate, $20 million Environmental Protection Agency grant program for water and wastewater infrastructure in Alaska Native Villages would also be cut under the proposed budget.

Sullivan said that he is "strongly opposed" to the budget cuts that would "disproportionately target rural economies across our country," including the Essential Air Service, water and wastewater infrastructure, low-income heat payments and education programs.

The EPA was in line for the largest cut among federal agencies, at 31 percent. But Murkowski, who heads the appropriations subcommittee that manages the EPA's budget, has said repeatedly in recent weeks that the agency cannot sustain such a massive budget cut.

The Trump budget proposal also takes an ax to a variety of education programs amid a suggested 13 percent cut to the Department of Education's budget.

Alaska would lose $5.7 million in funding for the 21st Century Community Learning Center program, which funds before- and after-school programs for about 5,000 Alaska children.

The budget proposal also cuts higher-education grants. That includes zeroing out the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant program, which provides up to $4,000 in aid to help low-income students pay for college. In 2015 and 2016, the program offered more than $1 million in grants to Alaska students, according to data compiled by Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee.

The budget eliminates economic development grants, community development block grants and affordable housing programs, each of which fund millions of dollars of programs in Alaska each year.

Alaska could also lose about $1.3 million in funding for legal aid, and the budget suggests cuts to a variety of job training programs in use throughout Alaska.

The budget proposal also cuts a variety of federal programs that provide less than $1 million each to Alaska: a state homeland security program, an emergency food and shelter program for the homeless, and a community policing program.

'A taxpayer-first budget'

On Tuesday, Mick Mulvaney, head of the White House Office of Management and Budget, responsible for the budget request, said that the Trump administration is "no longer willing to measure compassion by the number of programs out there" but instead by helping people get off those programs.

"And that's what I mean when I say it's a taxpayer-first budget, going line by line through the budget, trying to put yourself in the shoes of the people who are paying for those lines," Mulvaney said in a briefing with reporters Monday night.

"While I agree we must make serious steps to deal with our nation's staggering debt, we cannot solve these problems by simply cutting and shuffling around what I often call 'old money,'" Young said after the budget was released. "My argument has always been that you can't cut your way to prosperity."

The budget program relies heavily upon undetermined tax cuts and other mechanisms that Mulvaney said will boost the U.S. economy to a sustained annual 3 percent growth rate.

The current growth rate is 1.9 percent and some economists have questioned the math behind the administration's optimistic assumptions.

Mulvaney said the administration does not believe a 3 percent growth rate is "fanciful."

"If you are a 30-year-old adult, you have never had a job in a healthy American economy. You've either been in a recession or sluggish recovery. And you think this is normal. And we are here to tell you it is not," Mulvaney told reporters.

The budget proposal is part of the Trump administration's broad interest in changing existing tax, trade, regulatory, energy, welfare and infrastructure policy.

"Everything is keyed to getting us back to 3 percent," Mulvaney said.

Erica Martinson

Erica Martinson is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Washington, D.C.