‘Poison pill’-free Interior Dept. spending bill moves ahead
Sen. Lisa Murkowski is touting her Interior and environment budget bill as much for the process behind it as what’s in it.
Alaska’s senior senator emphasized in a June 14 call with reporters that the $35.8 billion fiscal year 2019 discretionary spending bill passed unanimously out of the Senate Appropriations Committee earlier that day, which she said is a sign that Congress might finally be returning to regular order when it comes to funding the government.
Murkowski chairs the Appropriations subcommittee covering the Interior Department, Environmental Protection Agency and the Forest Service.
“As of (June 14) we have moved through over half of the appropriations bills,” of which there are 12, Murkowski said. “All, all of them on a strong bipartisan basis, many of them, like we did with the Interior bill, unanimously. So it’s a new day on the Appropriations Committee and I’m optimistic about our way forward, but we’re going to have to be diligent to stick to a commitment to achieve results and not just send a message.”
The messages she referenced are political ones inserted into spending bills that otherwise don’t belong there.
“We had to stand down on some of the controversial provisions that have been included in years past that have been the poison pills,” Murkowski said further. “One person’s priority can be another’s poison pill.”
Those poison pill messages that have in part been to blame for the government funding process that has been derailed in recent years.
As far as anyone can tell, 2010 was the last time an Interior budget bill moved through the Appropriations Committee with bipartisan support, according to Murkowski.
Since then the spending bills have largely moved on party lines only to get rolled into omnibus bills in good years and scrapped for continuing budget resolutions other times.
Murkowski called that practice, which has become commonplace, simply “a bad way to run a government. Some call me overly optimistic but I need to believe that we can fix an appropriations process that has just been allowed to flounder.”
Murkowski acknowledged everyone in the Senate, she included, has participated in the troubled process.
Last November Murkowski released a similar, $32.6 billion Interior budget bill for fiscal year 2018 with language calling for the Forest Service to temporarily stop its transition to young-growth only timber harvest from the Tongass National Forest, amend the Tongass Management Plan and exempt the Chugach and Tongass National forests from the controversial Roadless Rule.
Those provisions were ultimately scrapped from the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill Congress passed in late March amid the looming threat of a government shutdown.
She said Appropriations chairman Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., made it a priority to return to the regular order of vetting and voting on the 12 annual spending bills when he took over the committee. Murkowski also thanked ranking Interior Appropriations Subcommittee Democrat New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall for gathering support amongst his caucus members to move the bill.
Udall echoed Murkowski in a formal statement, noting the bill is “free of poison pill riders,” but he also stressed it does not include deep cuts to the EPA, and Indian Health Service budgets proposed by the Trump administration.
“I thank Sen. Murkowski for her work and chairman Shelby and ranking member (Sen. Patrick) Leahy for their commitment to regular order. As this and other appropriations measures are considered, I am committed to working together to adequately fund the federal agencies and programs that provide New Mexico and Americans with the services and protections they deserve,” Udall said.
Shelby noted in a June 19 statement that President Donald Trump vowed he wouldn’t sign another omnibus spending bill after approving the one in late March.
He said the committee had passed seven of the 12 appropriations bills and was on track to consider all of them before the July 4 recess.
“What has been truly remarkable, however, is not the speed of the fiscal year 2019 appropriations process, but the bipartisanship that has given it new life,” Shelby said. “All seven of the bills passed by the committee thus far have garnered overwhelmingly bipartisan support. Most of them, in fact, have been approved unanimously. This is no small accomplishment in today’s partisan political environment.”
Getting bipartisan support typically means spending, and Murkowski’s bill includes increases to the National Park Service’s deferred maintenance and construction budgets along with a $234 million increase to the Indian Health Service budget.
The IHS funding includes $192 million for water and sewer infrastructure upgrades in Tribal communities as well as $30 million for construction of Tribal and Alaska Native health care facilities.
“This is a very important bill for Alaska, very significant for Alaska. I say that this bill is about land, water and people,” Murkowski commented.
The bill also provides $4.3 billion for wildfire suppression efforts, which is the 10-year average funding level, and another $900 million in anticipation that the regular funding will not be enough, according to Murkowski’s office.
Specifically to Alaska, it provides $9.5 million for legacy well cleanup in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska and $7 million for the U.S. Geological Survey to conduct assessments in the NPR-A to improve topographical and geological mapping.
It also includes $22 million that should allow the federal government to fulfill its requirements to transfer selected lands to the State of Alaska and Alaska Native corporations, according to Murkowski’s office, among many other provisions.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].