WASHINGTON -- When Sen. Lisa Murkowski heads back to Washington, D.C., this week, she'll be tasked with defending the financial interests of the Last Frontier as Congress completes the first long-term transportation bill in a decade.
Murkowski, who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, was appointed as one of 13 senators and 28 representatives tasked with hashing out differing House and Senate bills before highway funding expires on Nov. 20.
"From Alaska's perspective, the fact that Sen. Murkowski got put on the conference committee is really important," Sen. Dan Sullivan said this week.
The senior senator says she'll use her choice position on the conference committee to defend a funding formula that benefits Alaska, as well as spending for ferries and Native groups.
The bill would mark the first time since 2005 that a highway funding deal has extended further than two years. The last long-term transportation funding bill is largely credited to another Alaskan -- Rep. Don Young. That bill's acronymic name, "SAFTEA-LU," even included a tribute to his first wife, Lu Young, who had died several years later. And a $200 million earmark for the Gravina Island bridge included in that bill became a touchstone for a fight that eventually led to a Congress-wide ban on nearly all earmarks.
Without earmarks, the funding allocation dividing transportation dollars among the states is the main way for lawmakers to send money home. But where those dollars come from remains the major problem that Murkowski and colleagues will have to solve in the coming week.
The Senate bill, passed over the summer, authorizes six years of spending but only provides three years of funding. And Murkowski has long been unhappy with Senate plans to raise funds by selling oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
Murkowski has been clear that she thinks "some of the pay-fors that are in the Senate bill are not good policy," she said Friday. "I have long maintained that selling oil from the Petroleum Reserve is short-sighted. It erodes our own safety net. The insurance that we have from a security perspective," she said. Nevertheless, Murkowski said she was heartened by provisions included in the recently passed budget bill regarding drawdowns from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
"So what I'm looking to do is minimize the security impact. I'll have a pretty keen eye on that," she said.
The six-year House bill, passed this month, provides more funding and draws from another pot -- including pulling $40 billion from a rainy day fund held by the Federal Reserve System.
And with the House taking a different route for funding, "there's probably more out on the table now … than we had when we first started working the transportation bill for the Senate," Murkowski said.
Neither option addresses the long-term problem of a dwindling Highway Trust Fund, which is fed by a gasoline tax last raised in 1993. Congress has kept the fund alive since 2008 by transferring $65 billion from the General Fund of the Treasury.
Murkowski called both the House and Senate bills "a one-time fix" and said it's time for a real conversation about funding. "I really think that we need to be looking to making sure that our highway fund is sustainable," she said.
"On this highway bill -- we're going down a road we haven't before" by separating the source of funding from the destination with "these one-time pay-fors and kind of cobbling together a fix," Murkowski said.
Murkowski said it's reasonable for raising the gas tax to be on the table, as unpopular as that may be. Having a federal gas tax feed the highway trust fund is meant to tie funding directly to those who use the roads. Young has previously suggested that raising the gas tax is the best course of action.
But for now, the House and Senate conference committee will likely come to an agreement that funds the bill for five or six years in a compromise between the two funding mechanisms.
And whatever way it goes, Alaska's lawmakers hope they'll see a victory in boosted transportation funding for Alaska over the next few years.
In both bills, the formula that divides the bulk of funding among the states stayed the same -- and to Alaska's advantage.
"It keeps the formula that we've had," which many members of Congress were hoping to change, and "the bottom line on that is the formula currently benefits Alaska significantly," Sullivan said.
"The apportionment of federal funding for Alaska in (fiscal year 2014) was $483 million," Sullivan said. But under the new bill, the state will get more each year, and in the sixth year, in fiscal year 2021, the state will receive $581 million, he said. "That's a significant bump-up for Alaska," Sullivan said.
"With the highway bill, so much comes to us through the formula program and so we want to make sure that the core formula program remains intact" and "we don't see any erosion there," Murkowski said.
Murkowski said she'll also focus on making sure funding goes to ferries, which have been hit hard by the struggling state budget, and to tribes.
And she said she'll defend funding for the Alaska Railroad in the bill, which she credited to the work of Rep. Young.
Young secured $31 million annually for the Alaska Railroad in the House version of the bill. The Senate bill had no rail title, but one is likely to make it into the final product that is sent to the president.
Young is not appointed to the conference committee, but does hold a senior position on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, where he focused on boosting spending in Alaska for the railroad, ferries and tribes, while cutting fees.
"By improving investments in our roads, railways and bridges through the elimination of red tape, duplicative government programs and overbearing permitting regulations, we allow our limited transportation dollars to go further and make larger impacts," Young said in a statement when the House bill passed by a vote of 363-64.
And both chambers passed provisions urging the conference committee to include grant funding for railroads that need help complying with new safety mandates. Last month Congress delayed requirements to implement "positive train control," which is used to avoid derailments and other accidents. The Alaska Railroad is still running about $18 million short in its ongoing upgrades, and the funding could help.
Murkowski said she'll also fight for a final bill that keeps tribal funding intact. Despite flat funding from year-by-year spending bills, the Department of Transportation made some changes in 2012 to how federal highway dollars are allocated to tribes, Sullivan said. The changes put tribes with fewer members at a disadvantage.
In response, Sullivan offered an amendment to the bill that would provide a minimum of $75,000 to any tribe, regardless of size. "That would benefit Alaskan tribes significantly," he said. Sullivan said he asked Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to support the measure as the Obama administration negotiates with Congress over the final highway bill.
Young touted a $210 million increase in tribal transportation dollars over the next six years in the House bill, as well as a 1 percent cut in administrative fees by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Federal Highway Administration.
Sullivan and Young hope the final bill pares back federal red tape and provides more flexibility to state and local governments, in part by streamlining permitting processes and eliminating duplicative federal offices.
The Senate bill "begins the process of serious permitting and regulatory reform," Sullivan said. "We have a federal regulatory permitting system that is fully, unequivocally broken."