Obama's budget shows Alaska's on the president's mind

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's latest budget request, due out on Tuesday, will pay homage to Alaska on its cover, with a photo of Denali, and several budget priorities aimed at the state.

Many in the state have been awaiting the fiscal year 2017 budget request to see just how the administration plans to carry out many of the promises made during Obama's trip to Alaska, including advancing funding for new icebreakers. There's no billion-dollar line item, but the administration did include funding to push the acquisition process forward.

Typically, presidential budget requests are released with fanfare in Washington, D.C., including a flurry of meetings and testimony. But Congress holds the purse strings, and interest in the president's priorities wanes quickly when another party controls both chambers, as is the case now.

But lawmakers do look for places where they agree with the administration's spending desires for an easy path forward in the often bitterly partisan budget process.

The president's fiscal year 2017 budget request shouts Alaska right from the cover, with a photo of the mountain formerly known as Mount McKinley. Obama restored the peak's Koyukon Athabascan name via a "secretarial order" in August.

Until the release of last year's budget, the president's budget requests were usually printed with a plain blue cover. Hoping to enhance focus on White House spending priorities, the Obama administration changed it up last year, using a photo of the Tappan Zee Bridge in New York in honor of infrastructure investments.

One of the top priorities of Alaska's congressional delegation has been obtaining funding for new icebreakers. The U.S. has three, though only two of them work. Russia, by way of contrast, has more than 40 icebreakers in its fleet, and is building more.


Obama pledged to accelerate construction of a new heavy icebreaker during his visit to Resurrection Bay in Seward on Sept.1.

The U.S. Coast Guard has begun discussions with ship builders to advance the process of acquiring new icebreakers, which come with a $1 billion price tag.

The budget request doesn't quite include funding for new icebreakers, but does exceed the $7 million toward acquiring a new icebreaker included in the appropriations bill passed in December. The budget includes $150 million "to complete all planning and design activities necessary to begin production activities by 2020," according to the White House. "The new, heavy icebreaker will assure year-round accessibility to the Arctic region for Coast Guard missions including protection of Alaska's maritime environment and resources," the White House said.

The budget request also includes $400 million -- over 10 years -- for Alaska communities threatened by climate change and coastal erosion, as part of a $2 billion Coastal Climate Resilience program.

The president's budget also boosts spending on the Denali Commission, requesting $19 million, up $4 million from the FY16 spending level. The White House has advocated a lead role by the commission to coordinate federal, state and tribal resources for communities dealing with climate change impacts.

Across the Obama administration, the budget includes $100 million aimed at planning and infrastructure for Alaska Native villages, including $40 million in Arctic investments through the Department of Energy, $26.8 million through the Agriculture Department's grant program for rural water and waste projects, and $17 million for water infrastructure projects through the Environmental Protection Agency.

Also included in the president's budget request is a plan to tax oil companies -- $10 per barrel -- to raise spending for transportation infrastructure, a plan that Republican leaders have already deemed "dead on arrival."

Over the last year, the White House has focused on Alaska's position on the forefront of the economic and environmental impacts of climate change, particularly in the Arctic.

"The President believes we must invest in Alaska's long-term economic and environmental well-being in a way that transcends his time in office," the White House said in a statement to provided to the Alaska Dispatch News, along with the information about Alaska-related budget requests.

The FY 2017 budget request to Congress envisions a "future of Federal-State collaboration in Alaska with a package of proposals aimed at reducing the risks of climate change and building the resilience of Alaska's communities and natural resources to climate change in a fiscally responsible way," the White House said.

Erica Martinson

Erica Martinson is Alaska Dispatch News' Washington, DC reporter, and she covers the legislation, regulation and litigation that impact the Last Frontier.  Erica came to ADN after years as a reporter covering energy at POLITICO. Before that, she covered environmental policy at a DC trade publication and worked at several New York dailies.