The big federal spending bill: what’s in it for Alaska (and what isn’t)

WASHINGTON — Alaska's lawmakers scrambled Thursday to see what was in and what was out in the $1.3 trillion "omnibus" spending bill released by congressional negotiators just 48 hours before a government shutdown deadline.

The bill is big on funding and short on policy provisions. Dollars for the Denali Commission doubled, but an exemption from a federal environmental regulation Murkowski sought for the Tongass was cut. Congress decided to fully fund the Environmental Protection Agency, but couldn't reach consensus on provisions designed to shore up state health care exchanges.

Though the bill was released Wednesday evening, the House waived the usual three-day waiting period and voted to pass the 2,232-page omnibus funding bill at 1 p.m. Thursday, by a vote of 256-167. Alaska's sole congressman, Republican Don Young, voted in favor. He was not available for an interview.

The Senate approved the measure early Friday morning, and President Donald Trump is expected to sign it into law.

The bill doubles funding for the Denali Commission, which funnels federal money to help remote Alaska villages threatened by erosion and the impacts of climate change. The $30 million total stands in contrast to the Trump administration's recommendation to cut the budget in half. The big boost comes just five years after the commission's own inspector general suggested that it be eliminated from the budget entirely.

Murkowski did not manage to secure either of two provisions she was lobbying for regarding the Tongass National Forest: One would have undone a forest management plan that phases out old-growth clear-cutting. The other would exempt the state of Alaska — and the Tongass — from the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule that stands in the way of timber harvesting in much of the forest.

There is bill language that directs the Forest Service to complete its inventory review before "a final transition away from its Tongass old growth timber program to a program based primarily on young growth."


Environmentalists cheered the fact that the Tongass National Forest provisions didn't make it into the bill. "The Tongass isn't out of the woods just yet, but Congress removing harmful riders that would have taken Paul Bunyan's ax to centuries-old trees in America's largest rainforest is a positive step," said Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League in a statement.

Quite a few agencies that operate heavily in Alaska saw a boost in funding.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was granted an additional $234 million, for a $3.7 billion budget. That includes $20 million for fishery disaster assistance and $65 million for the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery program.

Military troops are up for a 2.4 percent raise — the biggest such boost in eight years.

Overall, the bill funds the Department of Interior at $13.1 billion — the same as last year, despite the president's recommendation to cut it to $11.6 billion. It included increases for the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Service, the Indian Health Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Payments In Lieu of Taxes.

The bill included $150 million toward acquiring new polar icebreakers, despite no funds requested by the president. The hefty price tag won't get far, however: a new icebreaker costs in the neighborhood of $1 billion.

The park service was given 90 days to report to committees on "options for preserving historic aircraft located within the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument on Atka Island in Alaska." It's the largest of the Andreanof Islands in the Aleutian Islands.

The omnibus also included major extra funding in the bill for the nation's ongoing opioid addiction epidemic, totaling more than $4.65 billion across the federal government — $3 billion more than fiscal year 2017 spending. That includes new funding for the Drug Enforcement Agency, and $330 million in funding under the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, to add prevention and education programs and support for children and families suffering because of addiction.

But other health care priorities did not make it into the bill: Bipartisan talks to shore up state health care exchanges broke down when Democrats balked at applying an abortion-related amendment the exchanges.

Murkowski joined with a group of Republican colleagues Wednesday, before congressional leaders released the text of the omnibus bill, to decry the fact that there would be no policy riders included to help stabilize state health insurance exchange markets.

Republicans argued that the amendment was nothing new, and has been standard for many years. Democrats said the language would have expanded restrictions — in the so-called Hyde Amendment — to cut off federal funds for any insurer that covered abortions at all.

Murkowski joined her Republican colleagues in a press conference Wednesday, but did not speak directly to the abortion debate, instead talking about how well the provisions the Republicans were seeking had worked to keep Alaska's expensive individual market from collapsing.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who, like Murkowski, does not usually join her party in supporting anti-abortion measures, argued that the Democrats were looking to score "partisan political points," and said she was disappointed.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the Senate's approval of the measure early Friday morning. 

Erica Martinson

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