Homer Alaska - Business

Story last updated at 11:57 AM on Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Murkowski 'frustrated' by closed door debt talks, prepares state for impacts



By Andrew Jensen
Morris News Service - Alaska

There is a fiscal reckoning coming to Washington, D.C., and Sen. Lisa Murkowski wants Alaskans to be ready.

The state's senior senator held a series of economic town halls on her most recent visit, describing her efforts as laying the groundwork for more than $1 trillion in budget cuts that will either be proposed by a 12-member, bipartisan committee of legislators or enacted by default if no agreement can be reached.

The deal to raise the national debt ceiling in August created the so-called "super committee" structure that tasks the 12 members — six senators and six representatives with six from each party — with finding at least $1.5 trillion in budget cuts over 10 years by Nov. 23.

If the committee cannot reach agreement among at least seven members, an automatic $1.2 trillion in cuts split equally between defense and non-defense budgets will go into effect.

Should the committee send a proposal to Congress, it must be voted on by Dec. 23 and no amendments will be allowed.

If the committee does send a proposal to Congress but it is voted down or vetoed by President Barack Obama, the automatic cuts known as "sequestration" will take effect.

In a meeting at the Alaska Journal of Commerce editorial offices Oct. 24, Murkowski described the topic for her townhalls as a "downer," but one that must be understood by Alaskans whose state budget is one-third funded by federal dollars.

"Whether it's military construction, our veteran population, our Native population, the fact you've got 65 percent of your state that is federally owned — we're going to feel the impact perhaps more, or at least in different ways, than many other states out there," Murkowski said.

The most recent fiscal year ended Sept. 30 with a budget deficit of about $1.3 trillion, pushing the total debt to nearly $15 trillion. That does not include some $116 trillion in unfunded liabilities tied to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Murkowski noted that current projections show every dime in federal tax revenue will be consumed by mandatory entitlement spending and interest payments on the debt by 2021.

"That's why I'm doing this," Murkowski said of her series of town hall meetings. "The trajectory out there is not sustainable. I think there is an assumption that, well the problem is big, but it's almost too big to get your arms around. The magnitude of the problem is such that people don't really understand it."

Making Murkowski's job more difficult is the lack of information she can share with constituents about what sort of cuts or tax reforms are being considered by the committee. At its first meeting Sept. 8, the committee agreed to keep deliberations private.

Murkowski understands some group is likely to be offended by any measure considered, but said she's "frustrated" at being shut out of the conversation.

"If I was in their shoes, that's probably what I would want, too," she said of the closed-door discussions. "But not being in their shoes, and being someone who was elected by the people of Alaska to represent them, I feel somewhat disenfranchised as a legislator there."

She said she's made recommendations as the ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and in her floor comments in the Senate but "we don't know for sure what is happening" in the debt committee meetings.

"I get a little frustrated and I'll tell you why," she said. "I talk to lobbyists that come into the D.C. office and seemingly they have a heck of a lot more information than I do. I don't know if they're making it up or it's wishful thinking, but they'll say, 'they're doing this with taxes,' or 'they're doing this with mandatory spending,' and it's like, 'how in the world do you know?'

"It makes me suspicious of the process. But as I've said, the process is what it is right now. ... I'm giving all the encouragement that I possibly can for their success, because sequestration is not going to be the answer."

The secrecy of proceedings and short turnaround time between the Nov. 23 committee deadline and the Dec. 23 vote in Congress makes it hard to sell the package, Murkowski said.

"I'm not able to say, 'don't worry,' to Alaskans," she said. "Then you get into the conspiratorial think, and it's, 'are they really talking to lobbyists? And which lobbyists? Is the more liberal contingent overpowering the more conservative contingent?'

"So when it comes out, it's going to be more difficult to stop that. And we all need to be advocates for the product, but how can you be an advocate if you really don't have that confidence about the process itself?"

Relating to the recent decision by National Marine Fisheries Service to delay publishing a final rule on the split of the halibut harvest between charter and commercial fishermen, Murkowski expressed regret at the animosity between sectors and brought the topic back to budget talks.

"One thing we can do is make sure we have good, strong data backing us," Murkowski said. "That can take some of the emotion out of it, or tamp it down a little bit. But we're all kind of suspect about the data, it's being used by one side or another. One of my concerns, to take it back to the budget, is if we see the reductions in budget I'm fearful we will see, we're not going to have the funding for the research. NOAA's budget, along with everyone else, is going to be sliced and diced.

"Then we won't have the good data, then we're making decisions based on either emotion or who has more political connections than the next guy, which is all wrong. The way we protect ourselves in this it to make sure our decisions are based in good strong science and we can't lose that."

She may not have a voice in the debt deliberations, but she did make that push on preserving fisheries research funding to John Bryson before she voted to confirm him as Secretary of Commerce.

The Commerce Department includes NOAA, and Murkowski said she received assurances from Bryson, whose background is largely in the energy and utility sector, that he would work with her to get up to speed on fisheries issues before she agreed to vote for his confirmation.

"He said he knows and understands the importance of this role and will make it his priority to not only become fully informed, but to be fully engaged. Basically I got a very strong commitment from him to work with me on these areas that are critical to Alaska."

Andrew Jensen is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce.

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