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Trump budget takes another run at killing Alaska’s Denali Commission

  • Author: Alex DeMarban
  • Updated: February 11
  • Published February 10

President Donald Trump's budget request for fiscal year 2021 arrives at the House Budget Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Feb. 10, 2020. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

President Donald Trump’s $4.8 trillion budget proposes eliminating the Denali Commission, using the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend as evidence the state is so wealthy it doesn’t need the federally supported program that has improved village tank farms, docks and other rural infrastructure.

Alaska’s congressional delegation on Monday vowed to protect the Anchorage-based commission, as they’ve done before. The Trump administration proposed eliminating the Denali Commission in previous years as well.

The budget reflects a president’s priorities and launches the budget process. But the budget still has to work its way through Congress, so it’s likely to see significant changes.

The fiscal year 2021 budget calls for the shutdown of the Denali Commission and two other agencies like it in the Lower 48. It says most of their work duplicates other federal programs, asserting they haven’t proven their effectiveness at boosting overall economic conditions in targeted areas.

A White House budget document singles out Alaska, noting that the state has enough money to pay its residents an annual dividend check. The proposed budget provides $7 million for the “orderly closure" of the Denali Commission, slashing funding by $10 million.

“(The) rationale for a unique and additional federal subsidy to Alaska is difficult to justify given that the state of Alaska’s oil revenues allow it to pay an annual dividend ($1,600 in 2018) to each of its residents,” the budget document says, repeating logic used by the White House in 2019.

“The budget proposes to eliminate these commissions to reduce federal spending and streamline the federal government’s role, while encouraging states and localities to partner with the private sector to develop locally tailored solutions to community problems,” the budget document says.

The Denali Commission, an independent federal agency, works with tribal, federal, state and local partners to improve rural infrastructure and economic development statewide. It has invested more than $1.2 billion into Alaska communities and leveraged for more than $900 million in additional funding, its website says.

Jason Hoke, the commission’s new federal co-chair, said the commission is critical to the state and federal government.

“I hope it does (survive) so I can prove to the president how valuable an asset he has,” Hoke said.

The commission was founded in 1998 through the work of the late Sen. Ted Stevens.

Alaska’s congressional delegation, which sided with the president during the recently concluded impeachment proceedings, has so far been successful in protecting funding for the Denali Commission.

They will do so again, each of their offices said.

“Sen. (Dan) Sullivan believes the Denali Commission should be fully funded, and over the last several years has worked with the Alaska congressional delegation to fund the commission beyond traditional levels,” Sullivan’s office said in a statement.

“Congressman (Don) Young has been a long-time supporter of the Denali Commission,” Young’s office said in a statement. “He will continue working with the Alaska delegation to ensure that it is funded so that it can continue its mission of serving Alaskans.”

“Those of us in Congress will take those (budget) requests under consideration as we work to determine what programs to fund and at what levels," Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a member of the Senate Appropriations committee, said in a statement. "As an appropriator, I look forward to moving through the Fiscal Year 2021 process in a manner that addresses a wide range of Alaska priorities.”

The budget proposal would also eliminate the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program that helps people pay for high heating bills. The program, considered vital in many of the colder, costlier parts of Alaska, would be cut from $3.7 billion to zero.

Using an online form, Murkowski’s Senate office is soliciting input from Alaskans until March 13 to explore budget needs in the state.

Other Alaska-related items in the Trump administration’s proposed budget include:

Providing $555 million to pay for a second new polar icebreaker, in addition to the one Congress funded in 2019, a priority of Alaska’s congressional delegation. The funding will “ensure America is at the forefront of safeguarding uninterrupted, year-round commercial activity, trade, and supply routes and confirming America’s leadership role in the Arctic and Antarctic,” a budget document says.

Providing funding so the federal government can accelerate mapping of the Alaska coast and U.S. waters to boost the nation’s understanding of nearshore resources and conservation opportunities, documents say.

Estimates that a lease sale for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge this year will bring the federal and state government each $503 million, and another $221 million next year. The administration had planned a lease sale for 2019 but it has been delayed. Critics have derided the estimated income from a lease sale as unrealistically high.

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