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By ANDREW SHEELER
Daily News Staff Writer
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski discussed her irritation with the U.S. Forest Service, fallout from the federal budget sequester, congressional gridlock and both immigration and campaign finance reform during a press availability held Monday at the Ketchikan Daily News.
Murkowski said she was "irritated in a big way" with the Forest Service, and its chief, Tom Tidwell. She was critical of Tidwell’s defense of the federal Roadless Rule and his statements that helicopters were an adequate substitution for roads, particularly when trying to develop hydro energy projects. Murkowski called such an approach "prohibitively expensive.
"I don’t think he has any concept of how you do this in a place like the Tongass (National Forest). They don’t call it Misty Fiords for nothing," she said.
Murkowski also accused the Forest Service of trying to "claw back" money it allocated in January to states covered by the Secure Rural Schools fund. She said the agency was trying to recover "in the neighborhood" of $800,000 from Alaska schools. Schools that failed to repay the funds in time would be fined and assessed late fees.
"To which I said, that is adding insult to injury," Murkowski said. "These communities have already spent the money." Murkowski said school districts like Ketchikan’s can’t afford to "pass the hat" to collect the money to repay. Along with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Murkowski sent a letter last week to Tidwell criticizing that decision.
In addition, she said she planned to work with Wyden and Montana Democratic Sen. Max Baucus on a "one-year fix" on the Secure Rural Schools funding shortfalls.
Another area in which Wyden and Murkowski are working together is on the Follow the Money Act of 2013 that they co-sponsored. The bill was unveiled on April 23, and would require all groups spending at least $10,000 in an election cycle to disclose any donor that gives $1,000 or more. The bill also would raise the threshold at which donors have to disclose from $200 to $1,000.
The bill is a response to the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United Ruling that declared donations to be a form of speech and therefore not subject to limitation.
Murkowski said the recent Congressional vote to avert the mandated furloughs of Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controllers was necessary, but also said Congress shouldn’t do a "piecemeal" approach to addressing harm caused by the sequester.
"The fact is, we’re sitting at $16.8 trillion in debt right now," she said, and she was concerned that members of Congress would seek to protect their constituencies from the pain of the sequester without addressing the budget deficit as a whole. She said the government needed to take a hard look at automatic spending increases, and start cutting "holistically" instead of automatically. She also said the FAA furloughs could have been averted if the FAA had cut more responsibly.
Murkowski said she wouldn’t rule out taking action where it was needed, though. She cited a proposed cut to veterans’ education assistance that she was able to work to undo via an amendment in Congress’ continuing resolution.
The "heyday" of Alaska projects receiving federal support dollars is over, Murkowski said. She said it was still important for her to know about community’s needs, and mentioned Ketchikan Medical Center’s remodel as an example. However, the days of earmarks are gone and "the role that we play is a little bit different now" in how money is brought in.
One area where Murkowski is trying to bring in support for local projects is through her Hydropower Improvement Act of 2013. She said the act, which would ease regulatory restriction on low-impact projects and promote more hydro project development, was moving along with bipartisan support.
She said that bipartisan spirit, while rare in Congess, was key to getting work done. She cautioned against hard-liners on either side of the aisle "throwing the bombs," stressing the need for civility in action and not just words. She said on many issues, there’s often "80 percent" that is mutually agreeable.
"I don’t think (ideological) purity tests on either side work very well," she said.
One area Murkowski listed as an example of bipartisan accomplishment was the subject of immigration reform. She said she applauded the work done by the so-called Gang of Eight on the subject. The gang consists of Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin of Iowa, Chuck Schumer of New York, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado and Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona, Marco Rubio of Florida and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
"This is an issue whose time has come," Murkowski said, adding that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has called for a reform package to be brought to a vote by Memorial Day weekend.