The economy still isn’t great in Alaska, but there are reasons to be positive, according to Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
The pendulum of oil and gas activity is swinging back toward the high end, with ConocoPhillips tripling its income in Alaska in 2017, Hilcorp announcing its intentions to spend $285 million in Alaska in 2018 and the price of oil climbing to about $70 per barrel, among other exploration and development activities. The end of 2017 brought the granting of a multi-decade wish for the state’s congressional delegation, too — a rider in the federal tax reform bill opened up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration.
The Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development reported that economic confidence in Alaska rose in the fourth quarter of 2017, based on survey data collected by consultant firm Northern Economics. Although Alaska’s unemployment rate is still much higher than the national, the increase in confidence is also promising, Murkowski said in a speech to the joint Kenai and Soldotna chambers of commerce on Friday.
“People might not be seeing it in translation of a new job or a higher wage, but the mindset of optimism is one that can help us deliver these positive changes that I think we all look for well,” she said.
It will easily be 10 years before any development takes place on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, between permitting issues and the time it takes for a company to lease and explore for assets there, Murkowski said.
The last year has contained a number of wishlist items for the Alaska delegation. Besides tax reform and the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke recently signed a land exchange deal to advance the construction of a road between King Cove and Cold Bay, a longtime battle for the Alaska delegation because of environmental and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opposition to the construction of a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
Environmental activism nonprofit the Center for Biological Diversity has already sued over the decision. Murkowski said this was not surprising and hoped the court would uphold the decision because of what it could mean for Alaska in the future in terms of access to public lands.
“We’re going to continue on this,” she said. “We’re going to prevail, and we’re not, not, not going to stop.”
The passage of the tax reform bill at the end of 2017 should also precipitate some economic benefits, she said. The bill, which “was not bipartisan, unfortunately,” she noted, passed in December 2017 and enacted broad changes both in individual and business taxes.
Among those changes were two postponements on health insurance taxes that would have been implemented by provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. One would have taxed employer health insurance plans above a certain premium per month, known as the Cadillac tax, and another would have placed a 2.3 percent excise tax on medical devices.
Murkowski said the two taxes were a major target for her because Alaska already pays some of the highest premiums in the country for health insurance, and though the taxes have only been delayed for now, her intention is to eliminate them in the future, she said.
However, the total cost of health care in the country is something the federal government still needs to tackle, she said.
“As I travel around the state … we’ll start a meeting with school board folks focused on education, we’ll start a meeting with fish board folks focused on fish policies, and we always end up talking about health care and the impact of health care and how the high cost of healthcare is squeezing our education, it’s squeezing our fishermen,” she said. “Recognize that at the end of this, we are still working aggressively, we must work aggressively to not just talk about increasing access to coverage but we have to work to reduce the cost of care.”
Congress still has to pass a budget — after a three-day shutdown, they passed a continuing resolution on Jan. 21 that kept the government running for another three weeks until Feb. 8, at which point they either need to reach at full agreement, pass another continuing resolution or go into shutdown.
Murkowski is part of the group of senators working on a budget compromise. The main hinging point is immigration policy, specifically the future of the Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals. The program is set to expire March 8, and the Democrats in the House and Senate want to see an extension or permanent fix for the program before they agree to a budget.
Murkowski said she thought DACA and immigration reform should be separated for now, as complete reform should take time and thoughtful consideration while DACA needs a quick solution to keep the government running. She did say she did not support the idea of a concrete wall to secure the border.
“I’m looking at it and saying what do we have to have?” she said.” We’re going to have to address DACA before then. In fairness, we have to make sure that when we’re talking about border security, we have to make sure that we’re enforcing our laws in a fair and humane way.”
Washington, D.C. has had a year of upheaval in President Donald Trump’s first year, and Murkowski’s office has been no exception. Early in the year, her office was flooded with phone calls with people opposing the confirmation of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, as Murkowski sat on the Senate Education Committee and had a vote on whether she would advance to the full Senate for a vote. Over the summer, Murkowski became a lightning rod as one of the few Republican senators who voted against the GOP’s proposed health care bill, ultimately striking it down.
Murkowski has been outspoken on Twitter and in person about her thoughts on Trump’s behavior. While she and Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) have been working with his administration to accomplish agenda items, she said she would continue to be outspoken about his statements or nominees if she disagreed with them.
“I think I can honestly say that we have made more headway in this past year than we have in a decade, and that’s good and that’s important,” she said. “Does that mean that I agree with everything Donald Trump thinks, says and does? No.”