Young, Murkowski talk immigration, infrastructure, Tongass and pot
The Presidents’ Day recess in Congress gave the Journal an opportunity to sit down with two-thirds of Alaska’s congressional delegation.
Rep. Don Young stressed the need to update the nation’s infrastructure, from bridges to icebreakers, and the means to pay for it during a Feb. 19 interview at the Journal office.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski highlighted her ongoing efforts to repeal the Roadless Rule in the state as a way to provide Southeast communities with more economic options.
Both discussed a similar desire to permanently resolve the in-limbo status of immigrants known as “Dreamers” — children brought to the U.S. at a young age by illegal immigrant parents or relatives — but with differing views on how the issue will play out in the coming weeks.
Sen. Dan Sullivan met with the Journal in late December.
Young said he wants to see a way for the immigrants to obtain expedited citizenship for those without criminal records and those who are employable or on their way to be if they are still too young to be in the workforce. He added that he doesn’t like referring to them as “illegal” immigrants given the unique nature of their situation.
“Some people say that’s amnesty. I’m saying no; if they were born here or came across (the border) unbeknownst to them and they’re living here they ought to have the opportunity just like anybody else,” Young said of the dreamers (so dubbed for a failed immigration bill known as the DREAM Act that would have addressed their status), many of whom are now adults.
Law enforcement agencies should focus on stopping illegal immigration, which undermines the efforts of those who attempt to move to the U.S. legally, according to Young.
President Donald Trump said last fall that he would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program established via executive order by President Barack Obama after six months — on March 5 — if Congress does not reach a deal to settle their status.
Murkowski said the current situation does not allow Dreamers to better their situation through education or formal job training because they are technically illegal immigrants, and that helps no one.
Young contended the DACA issue wouldn’t be resolved because Democrats in Congress do not want to solve what they can blame Republicans in Congress and Trump for not fixing. He noted that despite Republicans holding majorities in both chambers of Congress, Democrat support for legislation is needed to reach the filibuster-proof 60-vote threshold in the Senate.
Murkowski, on the other hand, said, “It’s not dead, I refuse to believe that,” in a Feb. 20 interview.
Four bills, including one Murkowski worked on with 25 other Senators, failed last week in the Senate. Murkowski’s bill received 54 votes of the 60 needed to advance.
On the budget, Alaska’s senior senator said she is desperate for Congress to get away from passing more continuing resolutions, or CRs, just to keep the government open now that an overall spending deal for the next two years has been reached.
The current continuing resolution is good through March 22.
On Feb. 8, Congress agreed on a budget deal to raise current spending caps by about $300 billion over the next two fiscal years.
The increased spending limits gives appropriations subcommittee leaders more flexibility in drafting agency budgets, Murkowski said, so the new numbers are being worked into prior spending plans that will hopefully result in an omnibus budget package.
“If we’re not successful with this (budget) and we need to do a short-term CR I think that would either be six or seven. It’s horrifying; it’s embarrassing; it’s wrong; it shouldn’t be done,” Murkowski emphasized. “Now that we got the budget deal and the caps have been set it’s ‘alright gang, everybody get to work.’”
Murkowski chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that covers the Interior Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Forest Service budgets. In November she released a $32.6 billion discretionary 2018 budget for those agencies with language that would have the Forest Service temporarily stop its transition to exclusively young-growth timber harvest in the Tongass National Forest and permanently exempt Alaska from the Roadless Rule.
The Tongass provisions would require the Forest Service to start the process to amend the 2016 Tongass Land and Resource Management Plan by Jan. 31 of next year. The current Tongass plan — an environmental impact statement started in 2013 by the Obama administration — took effect last December and directs forest managers to fully transition to only young-growth timber harvests in the Tongass within 16 years.
Murkowski supports eventually moving to young-growth harvests in the nation’s largest national forest but has sided with Southeast loggers who contend the management plan is not based on accurate timber inventories and does not provide adequate harvest volumes to keep what’s left of the region’s timber industry alive.
“We need to make sure in the Tongass we have a multiple use management policy. I set out on a strategy — there was no secret to it — I said, ‘within the Tongass we need to have some forest management reforms. If we’re going to have an inventory it needs to be an honest inventory,’” she said.
Murkowski couldn’t say whether or not the Tongass and Roadless Rule language would stay in the Forest Service budget bill when the full budget is debated but noted the state is petitioning the Forest Service for an exemption to the Roadless Rule as well.
Several attempts by the State of Alaska to secure an exemption to the Roadless Rule through the federal courts or have it thrown out entirely have been unsuccessful.
The petition route to a Roadless exemption is lengthy, but Murkowski said the administration is aware of the challenges the Clinton-era order presents and other western states such as Idaho have managed to negotiate exemptions that have benefitted their economies.
She added that the Roadless Rule doesn’t only hamper timber harvests, but it also impedes small communities in the Tongass from advancing generally supported infrastructure projects.
“In certain parts of Southeast — even though you have so much hydropower — there are certain communities that are not tied into one another and the (energy) costs that they’re facing are just sky high and yet you can’t have some kind of access road to build transmission (lines), to build your renewable energy resource,” Murkowski said. “If nothing happens those villages will die on the vine.”
Opponents to the Tongass management changes stress the region’s economy has shifted from timber and fishing to tourism and fishing since the peak logging days of the 1980s and early 1990s. Attempting to revive a marginally economic timber industry will just deter visitors who do not come to Alaska to see logging — not to mention the potential for damage to salmon habitat — they argue.
The Trump administration’s scaled-back $200 billion federal infrastructure spending proposal is too small for Young’s liking because it is the federal government’s responsibility to provide a reliable brick and mortar foundation for the country, he said.
“We need a universal (transportation) system for economic purposes,” Young said.
A $1 trillion infrastructure package was one of Trump’s primary campaign pledges.
But adding spending in roads, bridges and airports should not grow the deficit, either, he said. Young supports the president’s 25 cents-per-gallon increase to the federal gas tax as a means to pay for the upgrades.
“It seems high; it looks high; I know Alaskans won’t like it but if you want a transportation system someone has to pay for it and we’re $23 trillion in debt. You’re not going to borrow to do that,” he said.
The problem with the current gasoline tax of 18.4 cents per gallon is that when it passed in 1993 it was not indexed to inflation and therefore the effectiveness of the tax to support the Highway Trust Fund has dwindled, according to Young.
He has long supported other types of highway user fees based on miles driven or other options as well to capture revenue from drivers of electric cars and more fuel-efficient vehicles that use roads but pay less or no fuel taxes.
Young said despite broad rhetorical support in Congress he does not foresee a direct appropriation for roughly $1 billion to the U.S. Coast Guard to build a new heavy icebreaker.
Instead, he supports providing the Coast Guard an avenue to lease icebreakers long-term, which would also get around a federal statute that requires the Coast Guard to maintain its vessels with the cheapest parts possible, regardless of quality. It’s that mandate that has led to the degradation of the nation’s current small fleet of three icebreakers — one of which, the Polar Sea, has been inactive since a 2010 engine failure.
“The ship (would be) maintained by the owner of the vessel and you sign a 25-year contract or a 30-year contract or a 10-year contract, that’s up to the owners. And when you get done as the Coast Guard you decide to release it, then the ship is still in good shape and the owner of the vessel can lease it to another agency,” Young described.
Federal cannabis conflict
Murkowski and Young reiterated their opposition to legalized recreational marijuana in their state but also held firm on their joint stance that they will support the will of the majority Alaska voters who legalized it and try to remove federal roadblocks to operating a safe cannabis industry in the state.
Both said federal laws prohibiting banks from entering the state-legal cannabis trade continue to be a problem.
“I don’t like it; I don’t use it but it’s a states’ rights issue to me,” said Young, who is vice chairman of the House Cannabis Caucus made of representatives from states with legalized marijuana use. “I got interested because if you want to cause problems, have too much cash laying around. What I want (cannabis business) to be able to do as a business is work with the banks.”
Being unable to use banks has forced cannabis growers and sellers to operate on a cash-only basis, which has made them targets for robberies.
Young and Murkowski agreed that a bill changing the marijuana banking restrictions is not likely to make it through the Senate despite the fact that medical or medicinal use is permitted in a 29 states and polls show a majority of Americans support some form of legalization. More states are expected to have marijuana initiatives on 2018 election ballots.
“I think you have some resistance from members (of the Senate) who are just so opposed to marijuana legalization in any way, shape or form that regardless of what has happened in their states they’re not willing to move on that,” Murkowski commented.
“We are setting up law abiding citizens to be (robbery) victims and that is just wrong,” she continued. “We have got to be able to reconcile this.”
Young said he expects Congress to prohibit the Justice Department from spending any money to enforce federal marijuana laws in states where recreational use is legal after Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Jan. 4 issued a memo nullifying the 2013 Cole memo, which said the Justice Department would defer to state laws regarding marijuana.
Sessions is a staunch opponent to legalized marijuana and the spending prohibition for recreational use would expand what Congress’ similar directive related to medical marijuana operations.
While preventing spending as a means to control agency actions is far from ideal, as both indicated, it’s the best option for the time being, they said.
Murkowski added that she found Sessions’ marijuana memo “troubling” because it caught her off-guard. She said to her knowledge no senators were given a heads-up that it was coming, though it could have been different in the House.
“(Marijuana enforcement) has almost been kind of left to the U.S. attorney in the respective states for determination as to where they’re going to go,” she said. “That’s not very good policy either. I think it lends to further inconsistencies in application of the laws that are out there.”
The Alaska U.S. attorney has indicated enforcing federal marijuana laws is not currently a priority of federal prosecutors in the state.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].