Sen. Lisa Murkowski

GUEST COMMENTARY: Historic opportunities for Alaska in Tax Cuts and Jobs Act

This holiday season, Alaskans can have a renewed sense of hope for good jobs, larger paychecks, stronger growth, and enduring prosperity. The reason why is today’s passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which includes two historic opportunities for our state. The first — and perhaps most unexpected, at the start of this year — is the opening of the 1002 Area within the non-wilderness portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Set aside by Congress in 1980, Alaskans never gave up on its incredible potential for energy development, and our longstanding efforts finally succeeded this week. Opening the 1002 Area is the single-most important step we can take to strengthen our long-term security and create new wealth. Given Alaska’s economic struggles, with the highest unemployment of any state and massive budget deficits projected well into the future, the substantial benefits that responsible development will bring cannot arrive soon enough. New production from the 1002 Area will help restore throughput to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, our state’s economic backbone. It will help lower tariffs for the pipeline, increasing the viability of all North Slope oil development. Over time, it will create thousands of good jobs. And it will generate what we project to be over $60 billion in royalties for our state alone. Thanks to new technologies, we can also be confident that development will not come at the expense of our environment or wildlife. We need less land to produce more energy than ever before, which is why we have limited the footprint of development to no more than 2,000 federal acres — just one ten-thousandth of all of ANWR. In developing our legislative text, we took great care to listen to those who will have the most at stake as development begins. After visiting Kaktovik earlier this year, I took the concerns of local residents to heart, and made sure that neither the environmental review process nor consultation requirements would be waived in any way. While opening the 1002 Area is a significant milestone for Alaska, so, too, is tax reform. It will provide the kind of relief for working families that we have not seen since the days of President Reagan, some 31 years ago, while also taking long overdue steps to make our businesses competitive on a global scale. We cut tax rates for individuals in every income bracket. We doubled the standard deduction, to allow you to keep even more of your own money. We doubled the child tax credit, while making more of it refundable. We took significant steps to advantage small businesses — which make up 99 percent of the companies in our state. We significantly lowered taxes on pass-throughs, to create a ripple effect that will allow them to keep growing and hiring. We even cut the excise tax on small brewers, which should make everyone hoppy as good beer becomes more affordable. On the education side, our bill maintains all of the tax incentives to pursue postsecondary education that exist in current law. Students and parents will continue to benefit from tax deductions for tuition and student loan interest, exemptions for student tuition waivers, and employer-provided assistance. Finally, we restore Alaskans’ freedom to make their own decisions on health insurance by eliminating the individual mandate, a tax penalty that has harmed many in recent years. By repealing the mandate – all that is impacted is the tax that was imposed on those who chose not to buy insurance they cannot afford or simply don’t want to. Nothing else under the ACA is impacted. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was a team effort — the culmination of decades of work from countless Alaskans who never gave up. And while gratitude is deserved in many quarters, we would not have succeeded this year were it not for two particularly effective advocates for our state: Congressman Don Young and Senator Dan Sullivan, my friends and colleagues. This holiday season, we have plenty of reason for cheer, a lot to be thankful for, and even more to look forward to in the years ahead.

COMMENTARY: Long overdue energy bill a federal law Alaska can welcome

In late April, the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly approved a major energy bill for the first time in almost a decade. The Energy Policy Modernization Act is a broad rewrite of our increasingly outdated policies in this area. As you might expect, it reflects extensive input from Alaskans, and contains dozens of provisions that will provide lasting benefits for our state. The first thing to say about this bill is: it’s about time. The last time the Senate passed a significant energy bill was in 2007. Since then, new technologies have emerged as seen by the fracking revolution that has brought dramatic changes to our energy landscape. But at the same time, the relentless federal regulatory state has overtaken Congressional policy and direction. And many of our most pressing challenges, from aging infrastructure to high costs in rural regions, have gone largely unaddressed. Because our policies have not changed, we are in a situation where both opportunities and needs are being ignored. That is often the case right here in Alaska — where many of our residents still struggle to obtain affordable energy even while the federal government actively seeks to deny our most promising options for resource production.  My response, when I became Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last year, was to draft legislation that would bring our federal energy policies up to speed. I committed to a bipartisan approach that followed the almost forgotten process of regular order. And I kept Alaska front and center, from start to finish. The result? A broad, bipartisan bill that will increase production in Alaska, help our residents pay less for energy, and ensure continued access to our public lands. For starters, my bill boosts mineral development — without weakening environmental protections — by prioritizing resource assessments and tackling permitting reform. It streamlines the regulatory process for hydropower, which can provide renewable electricity to dozens more communities across our state. It provides routing flexibility for the Alaska gasline, to eliminate a federal hurdle that could have stood in the way of that must-build project. And it requires timely decisions for LNG export applications, to prevent unnecessary bureaucratic delays, which will help Alaska market our stranded gas. My energy bill is not only about policy reform. It also prioritizes innovation and efficiency, for everything from microgrids to commercial buildings. It reauthorizes programs that provide vital funding to Alaska, including the Weatherization Assistance Program, the State Energy Program, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Indian Energy. It promotes the development of our methane hydrate, marine hydrokinetic, and geothermal resources, all of which can be significant contributors to our supply. And it allows states like Alaska to apply for federal energy loan guarantees, which will help us deploy new, lower-cost systems in communities across the state. Equally noteworthy is the approach we took in crafting this bill. It rejects the model of government-knows-best in favor of policies that will empower individuals and communities to take control of their energy futures. There are no top-down federal mandates within it. We similarly avoided tax increases and anything that would add to the federal deficit. It is also more than just an energy bill. The night before it passed the Senate, I offered my Sportsmen’s Act as part of a larger amendment related to lands and water policy. The Sportsmen’s Act will help ensure access to public lands for hunting, fishing, and other outdoor activities that are important to Alaskans — and I’m pleased to report that the Senate unanimously approved it. Lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service will now be “open unless closed.” We clamp down on their ability to shut down access to our public spaces. And we require every agency to expand and enhance sportsmen’s opportunities in federal areas. The Sportsmen’s Act will help ensure that places like Tiedeman Slough and Martin Lake Cabin remain open. And they collectively represent a big step forward to allowing long-held traditions to be passed down from generation to generation – without the federal government getting in the way. But it’s not just about keeping our public lands “open unless closed,” the sportsmen’s provisions in the energy bill included the reauthorization the North American Wetlands Conservation Act which is critical to hunters who go out for waterfowl, migratory birds, and other wildlife. The Energy Policy Modernization Act was created by listening to Alaskans. It was written with the advice and expertise of a wide range of individuals across our state. It will help us produce more energy, it will help us save energy, it will reduce local energy costs, and it will keep our lands open. In the process it will allow us to create new jobs, generate new revenues, and continue our strong contributions to the nation’s energy supply. This is a bill for Alaska — and a potential federal law that, for once, every Alaskan should welcome. Lisa Murkowski is the senior U.S. senator from Alaska and the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.  

GUEST COMMENTARY: Every Student Succeeds Act fixes No Child Left Behind flaws

Fixing the flawed No Child Left Behind Act, or NCLB, has been years in the making. This past week, we’ve reached a major milestone. On (Dec. 10), the President signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act, referred to as ESSA. Congress passed NCLB in 2001, the year before I came to the U.S. Senate. It was intended to help states identify and focus on the educational disparities among students and take steps to improve schools that did not serve students well. That was necessary. Despite its obvious flaws, NCLB had good intentions. It delivered both a level of understanding about which children were being left behind and a realization that our schools must be accountable for each and every child. What was wrong with NCLB was that it imposed one-size-fits-all solutions from over 4,000 miles away. NCLB brought us “Adequate Yearly Progress”, or AYP, that gave our schools 31 ways to fail and almost no chance to succeed. It gave us a definition of a “Highly Qualified Teacher” that could not measure whether a teacher effectively engaged our children in learning. It brought the mandate that the first solution to improve a school was to fire the principal. And while Alaska received the Secretary’s “waiver” from NCLB’s requirement that every child reach proficiency by 2014, that “waiver” came with more objectionable conditions and mandates. Essentially, NCLB and waivers brought us a “national school board”. Since coming to the United States Senate in 2002, I have met with school board members, parents, educators, and students from across Alaska who were discouraged and sometimes just plain fed up with NCLB’s mandates, and who shared their ideas for fixing it. Throughout the past year, I have received phenomenal input from so many around the state as I played my part in writing ESSA as a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. My focus in this work was for Alaskans to have the ability to make the decisions that impact our schools, educators, students, and parents. So what will ESSA do? First, it will maintain the idea that we must identify which schools are doing a good job of serving our children and which ones need to improve. But it will eliminate unattainable AYP standards and empower Alaskans to decide how to help our struggling schools. As we move away from the “national school board” we also ensure that mandates for national standards like Common Core are prohibited. Under ESSA, states and communities will decide what standards our students and schools are expected to meet, the skills teachers need, and how to evaluate them. In so many ways, ESSA brings control of our schools back to where it belongs — to our communities, school districts, parents, and tribes — so that school accountability starts and ends right here at home. No more federal control, no more “waivers with strings”, no more “one-size-fits-all” education mandates that never fit here in Alaska. ESSA also includes a number of provisions I crafted that are important to Alaska, like the After School for America’s Children Act that I co-sponsored with Sen. Barbara Boxer, so that parents can remain at work after the school day ends, sure that their children are safe and engaged in enriching activities. ESSA also fixes a conflict between the Impact Aid program and the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act to relieve our rural districts of burdensome paperwork. And I made sure Alaska’s small high schools can calculate their graduation rate appropriately. I was also proud to make sure that Alaska’s Native peoples will have more say in their children’s education and that ESSA will help to revitalize Native languages. This legislation is another example that Congress is working for the American people again. ESSA was crafted over the course of a year by members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee through open negotiations. Senators were given multiple opportunities in committee and on the Senate floor to have their ideas heard and voted on. Finally, it went through conference with the U.S. House of Representatives, where more changes were adopted. Perhaps that is why the final bill passed both the House and Senate with an overwhelming bipartisan majority. The changes enacted by the Every Student Succeeds Act will not happen overnight. The law gives Alaska’s stakeholders time to craft our own plans, discuss them, and come to a consensus. It will be hard work, but it is a responsibility I believe each Alaskan should take seriously. What happens next in Alaska’s schools will be determined by the Alaskans who show up and who share their perspectives. Together, I believe we can do right by Alaska’s children. Murkowski is the senior U.S. senator from Alaska.

After August in Alaska — A full mind and a happy heart

I can’t decide whether I am the luckiest woman in Alaska or the luckiest person in America. I have just had the best 30 days anybody could have in any place ever. I have been home. Home in Ketchikan where people know my family well. In Metlakatla where when the planes don’t fly and you just deal with it, or ask somebody to take you to the airport in Ketchikan in their boat and they don’t think twice about doing it. And they call ahead to the airport to tell Alaska Airlines to hold the plane because they know the guy who works the gate. In Barrow when the sun is up so high in the sky at 11 p.m. that you feel like bedtime is a catnap in the afternoon sun. In Kaktovik, where you buzz the coastline looking for polar bears but the only one you see doesn’t move cause he’s so satiated from gorging on a ring seal that he ate for lunch (taken from a fish camp that we just visited) that he can’t move. Flying over the North Slope in a helicopter, a land that is more water than terrain, walking on the tundra that is like a magnificent sponge filled with color and water and delicate flowers. Talking with whaling captains about their ice cellars that are thawing and worrying about their food security yet anxious for more development in the Arctic as it means job security. Then down to Kodiak with the Coast Guard — everyday heroes who are there for Alaskans day in and day out. We flew out to the brown bear refuge on the island and stalked a stream to come upon a sow and her cub relaxing in the sun. We were the intruders in her world and kept a respectful distance. Kodiak is indeed the Emerald Isle. Cold Bay was the next outpost, made even more so since the only fuel source (the truck from Frosty Fuel) was out of commission. We flew out to a national security cutter in the Bering Sea and all I could think of was that these were the waters that my boys fish in. I was proud of them and afraid for them at the same time. These are big waters. I visited big bears the following day in Katmai National Park. An old boar nicknamed “Ugly” showed us how real bears fish. In Kenai I spent the day with 80 kids from military families and shared their delight as they caught humpies and silvers in the Kenai River. For many, it was their first fish ever. Verne and I flew out to Healy Lake for a celebration of life for a WWII vet and trapper who’s lived in the Interior since the 40s. A beautiful tribute to a wonderful man, complete with 21-gun salute, military flag ceremony and bowling balls shot from the canon into the stratosphere. He would have loved it. The quiet at Healy Lake in the morning was amazing — your ears absolutely rang because the quiet was so intense. Intense and beautiful is the best way to describe the Aleutians trip. Flying in a C-130 for almost 6 hours from Anchorage to Shemya. A true outpost. Flat, 2 miles by 4 miles, old buildings from WWII next to buildings housing missile defense assets. Brave souls made the “double dip” — swimming in the Pacific and then running around the cove to jump into the Bering Sea. Not me. We took the helicopter 30 minutes out to Attu — the end of the chain, directly under Russia and on its own time zone. No inhabitants on the island since 2009.  Amazingly beautiful with mountains straight up into the sky, lovely harbors and beaches and streams with fish so thick you could walk across. We helped erect a monument to the Natives who had been captured by the Japanese during the war and later interned, never to return to Attu. For an island that gets rain almost every day of the year, we had blue sky and calm winds as we ate lunch on the mossy, pillowy tundra. Adak almost seemed like civilization after Attu. Buildings and people (just over 100) were outnumbered by caribou (3,500). These three Aleutian communities are like a forgotten world, left over from the war. Amazing history. Verne and I spent our 25th anniversary at Winterlake Lodge on the back side of Mt. Susitna. The floatplane trip out was like a science class as our pilot told about the land formations and topography. Chena Hot Springs was yet another reminder to pay attention to science.  Bernie’s place is the land of possibilities and big ideas. Next year he will have bananas growing in his greenhouse! I felt like a Japanese monkey floating in the mist of the hot springs, alone on a Sunday morning before the crowds came to talk about geothermal, hydrogen and methane. In Kenai I ate graham crackers soaked in liquified natural gas to demonstrate how safe it is and then went offshore on an oil/gas platform in Cook Inlet to see where the stuff comes from. Instead of going to Tampa for the convention, I went to the Yukon River where the air is clear and the people there are focused on energy and food. Pretty basic stuff. In Beaver, a village of 70, the students danced and were shy and proud. The tables were filled with food that people had brought to share. It was obvious that those who had the least brought the most to share. Stevens Village was equally small, with big ideas about governance. Tanana is proud of their innovation with biomass and how they have brought down energy costs and created jobs. Yet, they have a new cafeteria at the school that has never been used as they wait for funding for a cook and lunch program. Our pilot (the best I’ve ever flown with) flew at about 400 feet throughout the region following the Yukon as he navigated weather. What a way to see the country. Ruby was nestled in the high bank of the river, lovely even in the rain. Tales of domestic violence and suicide marred the natural beauty of the area. In Galena we were greeted at the airport by my old friend Sidney Huntington, now 97. He’s still driving and conceded to go live in the elders facility because his wife told him she was done cooking for him. He has only made it through the third grade and is passionate about education. He has spoken at every graduation in Galena since 1973 and attends every basketball practice and game at the school. His sister is 93 and looks about 65. Good genes. Downriver we were in Kaltag, Grayling and Holy Cross. At each village the sun came out when we landed and as we were leaving the rain started to fall. After the third village it almost seemed beyond coincidental. The history of early Alaska was still present, from the mining in Ruby and sawmill in Kaltag to the old missionary church in Holy Cross. Pictures of horses and cows in Holy Cross was a reminder of how little outsiders understood the area at the time. Now it’s moose and fish again. The kids are learning their Native languages and dancing while taking pictures on their cell phones. I spent Friday evening at home in Anchorage by myself making rhubarb chutney from my plant that came from our old house.  It was good to make something from something that I grew. As I cut and stirred I reflected on all the places and people I had visited over the past 3 weeks. I am truly overwhelmed by the generosity, the warmth and support that I find. I have never received so many hugs from total strangers who greet me like a sister. And oh, the places I’ve been! Majestic, awesome, breathtaking. There are no adjectives to sufficiently describe a wilderness like Attu, Teshekpuk, the Yukon tributaries. My mind is full and my heart is happy. The only sadness I have is that in order to experience this amazing place I call home, I have to leave it. From back to D.C. and then to a conference in Iceland before it’s back to work here where people call me by my title rather than my first name and we exchange handshakes rather than hugs and talk politics rather than things that really matter, like family and food. I’m blessed in so many ways, but it’s times like this when I realize that I walk in several different worlds. Glad to have you all anchoring me to the world that really matters.
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