U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) gave her annual address Wednesday to the Alaska legislature, highlighting the opportunities presented by a Donald Trump presidency while trying to dispel anxiety.
Murkowski opened her 26-minute speech by telling legislators, “we are all living in interesting times.”
“There is an undercurrent of anxiety running through much of our state right now,” she said. “Alaska is in a recession. We have the highest unemployment rate in the country right now, and we face a multi-billion dollar budget deficit that has left this legislature… and left our state with nothing but difficult choices.”
Though she publicly disavowed support for Trump during the campaign because of his comments on sexual assault, Murkowski suggested Wednesday that Trump, aided by a Republican-controlled Congress, will improve Alaska’s situation.
Former President Barack Obama visited Alaska in 2015, using it as a backdrop for a discussion about climate change. While an accompanying conference in Anchorage focused on coping with the impacts, including the economic opportunities, Murkowski said the Obama Administration overlooked Alaska’s potential as an Arctic state.
“Most discussions at the federal level were dominated by climate change,” she said. “This is a real issue, but it is not the only issue. Even more concerning, the focus was often on how to stop economic development, rather than finding the right way for it to proceed responsibly.”
“On lands issues, in particular, we’ve suffered from this federal mentality of the need to ‘protect’ Alaska from Alaskans, rather than helping Alaskans build Alaska,” Murkowski said.
She told legislators that Trump and the new Congress are going to restore throughput in the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS).
“It is possible, and it will be done,” she promised.
“In many ways, the conditions that we face are improving at the federal level,” Murkowski said. “The next several years hold much economic promise for us as a state.”
Murkowski anticipates tax reform and infrastructure packages that she says will benefit Alaska.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) announced that Congress will take up tax reform and infrastructure in Spring after addressing health care.
Murkowski Says Provisions of Affordable Care Act Must Be Protected
Murkowski voted in January to begin the process of repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Obama’s signature policy. The budget resolution targeted the end of January as the deadline for “repeal and replace.”
She also voted to confirm Rep. Tom Price (R-Georgia) as Secretary of Health and Human Services, citing his opposition to ACA.
“The Affordable Care Act, quite honestly, has failed to deliver affordable care to many people in our state,” Murkowski told legislators.
At a press conference Wednesday, Murkowski said premiums under ACA have increased from an average of $251 to $800.
“That’s not affordable,” she said.
The state has been reduced to one insurance provider on the individual market, Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield.
Last year, the legislature had to pass a $55 million bill to keep premiums from increasing by 42 percent for people in the “high-risk” insurance pool covered by Premera. The State has applied for a waiver from the federal government to recover most of those costs.
“This is a collapsed system. It is simply not working,” Murkowski told reporters.
Murkowski chalked up a wave of heated town halls across the country to anxiety about the impending repeal of ACA.
“In addition to just being emotionally wrought because of health concerns, now they’re afraid, they’re anxious about this unknown,” Murkowski said.
“When we talk about ‘repeal and replace,’ does that mean that people will be left hanging? Not if I have anything to do with it,” she assured.
Murkowski admitted that the Senate is receiving pressure from the House to repeal ACA as soon as possible, but said, “It’s more important to get it right than to set an arbitrary deadline that rushes you and puts you in a position where you’re basically doing cleanup later on.”
“I am insisting that there are elements of the ACA that must be saved, that must be preserved,” Murkowski said in her speech.
Those elements include a provision preventing insurance companies from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions and another allowing children to remain on their parents’ insurance until they turn 26.
ACA also allowed for the expansion of Medicaid.
Murkowski acknowledged Wednesday that Medicaid expansion enabled 28,000 Alaskans access to health care for the first time.
“While I clearly have concerns about the expansion’s long-term costs, it has strengthened our Native health system and reduced the number of uninsured that are coming into our emergency rooms. So as long as this legislature wants to keep the expansion, Alaska should have the option. I will not vote to repeal it,” she told legislators, drawing applause.
Murkowski told reporters that Medicaid expansion is not a partisan issue because governors of both parties have chosen to expand Medicaid. Congress should therefore look to the states for guidance on the issue.
Another line receiving applause was Murkowski’s pledge not to end federal funding of Planned Parenthood.
“Taxpayer dollars should not be used to pay for abortions, but I will not vote to deny Alaskans access to the health services that Planned Parenthood provides,” she said.
The Hyde Amendment, continuously renewed in appropriation language, prevents federal funds from being used for abortions.
“Women that I am speaking with are concerned about going backwards in being able to access reproductive health care, and that is causing a great deal of uncertainty in their lives,” Murkowski said later, explaining her remarks.
In a tweet, Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii responded, “Thank you for committing to #StandWithPP @lisamurkowski”.
Murkowski’s stance on ACA and Planned Parenthood puts her at odds with many in her party, which she said can benefit Alaska when it comes time to vote on contentious issues.
“My politics don’t always neatly align with the Republican Party platform,” she said. “I think people do look to me and say, ‘Maybe we’d better check with Murkowski and make sure that this is something that’s going to work for the state of Alaska because we want to make sure that she’s going to be with us.’ That helps us.”
Rep. Andy Josephson (D-Anchorage) told Murkowski that he was prepared to ask her a pointed question on health care, but, “You took the air out of my balloon, and I find your answer largely satisfactory.”
Laughing, Murkowski called that “an endorsement.”
Murkowski: Trump Administration “Stepped in It” on Immigration
Another issue of interest to Josephson is immigration as overseen by the Trump Administration.
Josephson already introduced a bill that would prevent State resources from being used in the event of a federal registry based on race or religion.
He asked Murkowski about a Trump executive order addressing border security and immigration. The order encourages state and local law enforcement to perform immigration functions, like apprehension and detention, under Section 287 of the Immigration and Nationality Act.
On Monday, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly issued two memoranda calling for expansion of the 287(g) Program.
Though one memo asks federal authorities to “engage immediately with all willing and qualified law enforcement jurisdictions” (emphasis added), Josephson worried that the federal government might be involuntarily deputizing State law enforcement to deport undocumented immigrants.
“I hope you can appreciate, given our scarce resources, that that may not be what we want to spend our money on,” he told Murkowski.
Murkowski said people in Washington, D.C., are still analyzing the memos, but she acknowledged law enforcement in Alaska is already slim or nonexistent in some rural areas.
“This notion that we would be asking more, again without federal resources to support it, puts extraordinary strain,” she said.
Murkowski later told reporters that she does not support mass deportation and that the Trump Administration “stepped in it” with implementation of an executive order temporarily blocking immigration from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals blocked enforcement of the order earlier this month.
Murkowski also said she supports a Senate investigation into connections between the Trump Administration and Russia that is not limited to Russian influence in the presidential election.
“This is really important, so making sure that we do this investigation right — that the Intelligence Committee does it right — is where we need to go with it,” Murkowski said.
But the Trump Administration has only existed for a month, Murkowski noted.
“I’m not going to rate them on performance,” she said. “I don’t think it’s fair to give anybody a report card on your first month. The media has been very quick to jump on every tweet and every, perhaps, contradiction that comes out, and sometimes that might be warranted.”
She cited the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court as an example of the “professional and polished” action of the administration.
Murkowski supports Gorsuch’s nomination.
Familiar Refrain of Increased Access to Resources
Murkowski also supports the nomination of Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Montana) for the post of Secretary of the Interior. She helped move Zinke from her Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
Zinke was supposed to come to Alaska with Murkowski, but he has not yet been confirmed.
“I’m disappointed at the delays that have prevented the confirmation,” she told legislators. “When he does come to the floor… I think you will see that he will enjoy bipartisan support.”
On Wednesday, Alaska Sen. President Pete Kelly (R-Fairbanks) and House Speaker Bryce Edgmon (D-Dillingham) presented Murkowski with a resolution supporting the Izembek Road between King Cove and Cold Bay.
Calling the resolution “good stuff,” Murkowski told them she would deliver it to Zinke.
Murkowski has introduced S. 101, a bill authorizing a land exchange that would allow the road to be built through a federal wildlife refuge to aid medical evacuations in bad weather. Her office says there have been 55 medical evacuations from King Cove in the last three years.
Murkowski also has a bill that would open the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) — the so-called “1002 area” — to drilling.
“We can, and we will, bring the 1002 area of ANWR back into the conversation and seek to finally allow production in this area,” she told legislators.
The Senate passed another resolution Wednesday supporting drilling in ANWR.
“These really do help us,” Murkowski said of the resolutions. “Don’t think that the time that you spend debating them back and forth on the floor — and then it’s just a piece of paper, there’s no force of law — don’t think it’s a waste of your time because we really do point to those as evidence of statewide support.”
In addition to oil, Murkowski touted Alaska’s “world-class mineral potential.” She simultaneously addressed concerns that mines in British Columbia are polluting Southeast waters.
“We will not trade salmon for minerals or harm subsistence lifestyles, but we will insist that our Canadian neighbors upstream and across the border match our environmental standards at their own mines,” she told the legislature.
Murkowski voted to confirm Scott Pruitt as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), even though Pruitt sued the EPA multiple times when he was Oklahoma attorney general.
Murkowski addressed concerns Wednesday that Pruitt will “eviscerate the EPA.”
“I don’t believe he will do that at all,” she said. “There’s a keen recognition that the Agency is tasked to ensuring that our waters are clean and that our air is clean, but that the Agency has to operate within the laws that the Congress has written. The Agency can’t create their own laws or interpret the laws as they see fit.”
One Trump nominee that Murkowski did not support is Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
In a speech on the Senate floor, Murkowski explained that DeVos has spent so much time advocating for a private school voucher program that she is unfamiliar with public education.
Though Murkowski ultimately voted against DeVos, forcing an unprecedented tie-breaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence, Murkowski did vote for DeVos in the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, allowing DeVos to go to the floor with a favorable recommendation.
Addressing education policy Wednesday, Murkowski lauded the recent Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) for requiring consultation with state legislatures and tribes when crafting regulations.
“I think it’s time — it’s probably high past time — for the federal government to recognize tribal self-determination in the area of education,” she said.