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Alaska lawmakers see wins in broad federal spending bill

  • Author: Erica Martinson
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published December 16, 2015

WASHINGTON -- Congress' just-released "omnibus" spending bill and companion tax package have Alaska fingerprints all over them -- including provisions to lift a 40-year ban on crude oil exports, protect the fishing industry and support military spending in the state.

In the wee hours of Wednesday, top lawmakers released the text of a $1.1 trillion spending bill to fund the government through September 2016 and a companion package extending $650 billion in tax breaks. On Wednesday, the House passed another short-term funding bill to keep the government running until Dec. 22, though both chambers hope to move the tax and spending bills by week's end.

The omnibus spending bill essentially rolls up 12 appropriations bills -- all passed out of their home committees -- into one, a final deal negotiated behind closed doors by a select few. As chair of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that funds agencies of the Interior and Environment departments, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski had a strong hand in that part of the legislation. And her role at the helm of the powerful Energy & Natural Resources Committee played a key role in setting energy provisions in the bill.

Most notably, the bill lifts the nation's 40-year ban on exporting crude oil. Alaska has been able to export limited amounts of oil from the trans-Alaska pipeline since 1996, but Murkowski has made it her mission to lift the ban nationwide. Some U.S. refiners -- who stand to lose a monopoly on oil produced here -- have opposed lifting the ban.

Republican supporters of the provision landed the compromise in part by agreeing to extend wind and solar tax credits for five years. And the bill funds the expired Land and Water Conservation Fund, despite a push in the House to rewrite the law -- a move supported by Alaska Rep. Don Young.

Murkowski touted the provision as a win for energy and national security, arguing that it will spur new jobs and revenue. And given terrorist threats, "oil exports are needed now more than ever to reduce volatility and provide our allies, and the world, a stable and secure source of energy," Murkowski said Wednesday.

Elsewhere in the bill, Murkowski scored a win on labeling for genetically modified salmon. The provision requires the Food and Drug Administration to spend at least $150,000 "to develop labeling guidelines and implement a program to disclose to consumers whether salmon offered for sale to consumers is a genetically engineered variety." The FDA recently approved the sale of genetically modified salmon but did not require labeling.

The omnibus bill also includes a provision clarifying that only pollock "harvested in the State waters of Alaska or the exclusive economic zone … adjacent to Alaska" may be labeled as "Alaskan Pollock" or "Alaska Pollock." According to Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, who championed the provision, 113 million pounds of Russian pollock has been sold in the U.S. as "Alaska pollock" since 2012.

The bill also includes $65 million dedicated to recovery of Pacific salmon populations, through grants to states issued by the commerce secretary. States will be held to a requirement that they match at least one-third of the federal grant amount.

And the Fish and Wildlife Service is also tasked in the proposed bill with implementing "a system of mass marketing of salmonid stocks, intended for harvest, that are released from federally-operated or federally-financed hatcheries" -- including coho, chinook and steelhead species. The fish must be marked in a way that is visible to commercial and recreational fishers, the bill says.

Alaska's military interests do well in the omnibus as well, with military funding up overall, including $8.1 billion for the Missile Defense Agency -- $175 million more than the president requested. That includes full funding for the Long Range Discrimination Radar in Alaska.

The bill also includes $1.3 billion for 11 new F-35 fighter jets -- three of them will go to the Air Force at a spending price of $294 million. The rest will go to the Marines and Navy.

The bill allows the secretary of veterans affairs to enter agreements with Native health organizations in Alaska to provide care in rural parts of the state, including mental health and dental aid.

And Congress did get some digs in on the Affordable Care Act, though by no means a repeal. The omnibus proposal delays key taxes, including a medical device tax and the so-called "Cadillac tax" for expensive employer-funded tax plans.

The omnibus notably does not repeal several key environmental regulations, such as one defining the scope of the EPA's water regulations, or greenhouse gas restrictions for power plants. The bill did ban a few things the EPA isn't doing (and does not want to do anyway), such as regulating spent lead ammunition under toxic chemicals law or changing the definition of "fill" material for water regulations.

The executive branch will have to submit a report to Congress detailing all of its climate change activities.

The Interior and Environment portion of the bill includes $32.158 billion in funding -- with boosts for the Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management. The Environmental Protection Agency, however, took a $100 million cut, and agency staff has been pared back to 1989 levels.

Other Alaska-specific provisions in the spending bill include:

  • $500,000 for “a national clearinghouse that provides training and technical assistance on issues relating to sexual assault of American Indian and Alaska Native women.”
  • $20 million in grants to the state of Alaska for drinking water and sewer infrastructure in rural areas and Native villages. The state must provide a 25 percent match to the funds.
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