Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski was in Juneau last month to deliver her annual update to the Alaska Legislature, at the Capitol. While in town, Murkowski stopped by the Empire’s office on Monday, Feb. 18, for an exclusive interview. Here is the full transcript of the Empire’s interview with Murkowski:
Empire Editor Emily Russo Miller: I heard that during the shutdown you stopped flying here at all, to Ketchikan, you said it felt tasteless.
U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski: Well, we were supposed to be working, right? We were supposed to be trying to get the government open. And so those who were not around to help with the negotiation, not around to help, we can all operate off of our phones and internet, but there’s no substitute for sitting down and saying, you know look, what are we going to do, how are we going to make this happen?
Miller: Right. Well, speaking of the shutdown, how do we prevent that from happening again? I’m sure you’ve read how much it affected everyone here, especially with the Coast Guard and the federal building.
Murkowski: I recall in 2013 it was the Empire that had a front page story about Seong’s Sushi shop, and it was such a good story because it was a reminder that it’s not just those who receive a federal paycheck. It is everybody else in the community that is impacted by it. And in our smaller communities, and again in a state like Alaska where you have so many federal employees, whether they’re Forest Service, Park Service, our military, our Coast Guard, (Bureau of Indian Affairs), (Indian Health Service), you know it has impact on us. So back then I signed on to legislation that Senator (Rob) Portman from Ohio had introduced, it’s called Stop Government Shutdowns. What it would do, is it basically takes it off the table. It takes a shutdown off the table. If we’re not able to finish up our business with the appropriations by the end of the fiscal year, instead of going into shutdown, what it says is you automatically move to a continuing resolution and you take a hit, a cut, in the appropriated amount from the year prior. So as an appropriator, it’s awful because it takes away our authority. It’s harsh medicine, but apparently we need it. Because we have not been able to avoid sending us over the cliff. I worked so, so hard with my appropriations team to make sure that our interior bill made it through the process. For years now it hasn’t seen action on the floor.
Miller: Are you talking about the public lands?
Murkowski: No, I’m talking about our interior bill that covers things like public lands, but covers things like Forest Service, Park Service, IHS, BIA, EPA — it’s really significant. And we just haven’t been able to get it across the finish line and have it voted on. We voted it out of the Senate, it was extraordinary, and then nothing. Then we sit in this mess of a holding pattern since the end of that fiscal year. It’s not only Portman’s legislation, there’s three other bills that are out there that address impacts of shutdown. There’s the Pay Our Coast Guard bill, there’s efforts to deal with our federal contractors. Those are all kind of Band-Aids afterwards. I don’t want us to shut it down in the first place. So the question is what’s going to happen with it. I actually think we have more momentum, more bipartisan support for this to take it off the table than we’ve ever had. I think on the Republican side there was 30 some odd members that were supporting. Or maybe that was the combined number.
Miller: But isn’t that the incentive, to like, you know, this is the goal to make sure it doesn’t go into shutdown. So if you know it can never go into shutdown, doesn’t it remove an incentive in a way?
Murkowski: OK, there are other incentives that we can put in place. When we go into shutdown, we are messing with people’s lives. We’re telling you, we expect you to go out and pluck a fisherman out of the ocean, put your life on the line, but your spouse who’s at home doesn’t know if your paycheck is going to come so that she can make sure that she’s able to pay the rent, pay the mortgage, pay the child care. And those families who are working hard for us, who are furloughed and don’t have that support, that’s not right for them. There are tools that we surely have, maybe we dock our pay. Maybe we say if it’s in a shutdown, you don’t get paid. I suggested that if we go into shutdown there should be no travel. Boom. I don’t know if you have kids, but there were plenty of times when I’m like, you go into your room and you figure it out with your brother and don’t come out until you’ve got it done. But what happens is, oh we carry about our business. And in the meantime there are innocent people that are impacted. And I just think that that is not right. There are different ways that we can honestly conclude the legislative responsibilities that we have. And we should punish ourselves before we punish these good men and women that are working hard.
Miller: So would you introduce that bill to stop the pay?
Murkowski: Somebody has already introduced the bill to stop the pay.
Legislative Director Garrett Boyle: I would assume it’s Purdue.
Murkowski: Yeah, so that one’s out there. But here, think about it, this is not me, I’m not in that category that has so much money that I don’t notice when I get paid. But there are a fair number of men and women in Congress who are very independently wealthy, and so them getting a paycheck doesn’t stop them. Telling them that they can’t go home for the weekend, I’m used to that, too, cause it’s such an effort to get back home for the weekend. I’m not able to come home every weekend. But when you clip people’s wings, so maybe it’s a combination of both.
Miller: Gotcha. Well, if we could switch a little to state politics. As you know, Alaska’s still in a recession, still in a deficit.
Murkowski: Yep, third year.
Miller: You’re here to address the legislators, can you give us a little preview about what you’re going to say?
Murkowski: I’m going to speak about the people that make things happen. Much of my thoughts as we were framing what it is the message that we want to deliver, kind of stems from the aftershocks of the shutdown and a recognition that sometimes we don’t think about those that do help to keep the wheels on the bus around here. To use an example, back in 2013 of Seong’s, they’re not federal employees, but their business really relies on lunch breaks. So kind of a reminder to us all as to the importance of having the people in place to do those things that we anticipate, expect, want, need. The other part of it is, we have been, and this is where the legislature might be able to relate a little bit, it’s not news, but things have been in a state of dysfunction in the Congress. I think there has been a very clear impression that we can’t even brush our teeth in the morning. We’re not capable of doing anything. This is not a laundry list of Lisa accomplishments, these are reminders of the things, of the good things, the positive things, that we have been able to facilitate for Alaska. Even at a time when the top headline is it’s a wreck in Washington. So I think that that’s an important reminder. Because you’ve got a lot of new legislators, I think it’s like 14 of them, never served before. And so I think there needs to be just kind of a reminder, you know, you work together, sometimes it’s really challenging and maybe you don’t always get the best headlines, but you really can be accomplishing things. And sometimes you think they’re insignificant, but cumulatively you’re making a difference.
Miller: Right. So the Empire, and Mollie specifically, too, has been reporting on the new governor’s $1 billion proposed cuts to even the budget. Do you have any thoughts on that proposal?
Murkowski: Well I am going to let the legislature and the governor work through these challenges.
Miller: But please comment.
Murkowski: And no, I will. I will comment in the sense that the governor has taken a very, very direct and some would say bold approach with his effort to address the budget. He has been true to his word from the sense of this is no surprise, he said when he was running that in order to get things in alignment there were going to have to be some difficult calls. He made very very very clear that he felt that the Permanent Fund Dividend needed to be part of that with no compromise on the Dividend. So he has been true to his word there. Now if you’re going to make sure that the Dividend is intact and whole plus the back, you’re going to have to take things on the other side. So I think, it’s a fair statement that ever seat on Alaska Airlines out of Southcentral (Alaska) is full into Juneau right now as people are scrambling to come here and weigh in. And I think that they do need to be weighing in, whether you’re the university, whether you’re the educators, whether you’re the primary care. It doesn’t make any difference what sector you’re in, now is the time to be making your case. That’s an important part of any budget cutting exercise, is being able to make your case. We are in a situation, maybe it’s misery loves company here, as the legislature is dealing with this, keep in mind that we have not yet set our budget spending caps in the Congress. And so, we are looking at a reality where we have to find $90 billion in cuts.
Empire Reporter Mollie Barnes: Another question, the biggest cuts that the governor is proposing is to the areas of Medicaid and education. And one reporter asked him, do you think that cutting funding for these programs will cause people to move out of state, and he kind of responded in a way that ‘I’m not sure, they’ll have to make a difficult decision.’ So, do you have any thoughts on that, on will people be leaving the state?
Miller: More so than they already are.
Murkowski: Well, keep in mind, you started out your question here with a focus on the fact that we’re just now coming out of a recession. It’s been a three year recession. That’s longer than anybody else in the country when they went through kind of their lean times. I do worry about our ability to come out of a recession given what is in front of us and what that may mean. We recognize, and again it kind of goes back to the point of my address to the legislature: people are important. The people that process the permits that allow us to move forward, whether it’s doing seismic in the 1002, or making sure that you have health care in a community. If you don’t have a school or health facility in a community, you don’t have a community anymore. The functions of government are pretty basic, but look at those things that really allow us to be able to attract and retain the best and the brightest. It’s good schools. It’s good health care. It’s access to transportation. So these are some decisions that I think Alaskans need to be engaged with, but you’ve got a situation here where we have become so focused on the dividend. Now I am one who says that my dividend is not something that I look at and would suggest that Egan Drive here needs to be resurfaced or there needs to be better light, so I’m going to give my dividend to go fund that. We’re moving in a direction that is putting the dividend front and center. And so, Alaskans need to be engaged in this conversation. Because if you put it front and center, it comes at the expense of your government services, of the things that we anticipate that we expect that our government is there to provide for us.
Miller: Did you agree with Walker’s decision to use the PFD to help fund state government as opposed to this kind of approach now?
Murkowski: I have long said that the effort that had been underway for years, the percent of market value, where we allow for this softening, was an important part of how we balance what comes in and what goes out by way of dividends. I am one that has said many times, that dividend is a blessing and a curse. It is certainly something, I go out to these remote communities, nobody’s using their dividend for a ticket to Hawaii. That is what helps them offset the high cost of fuel, you know they’re able to get another 50 gallons at the beginning of the fall there. These are real offsets to the reality of living in a high cost state like Alaska. So I understand fully that economic impact. But we have become so tied to what that dividend is I think it makes us forget what else we do as state, and a state government.
Miller: So do you think Dunleavy’s PFD, what he campaigned for, is maybe unwise?
Murkowski: He campaigned on it. And the people of the state of Alaska voted for him. And so, I think think there is clearly support. And think about it, it was not just Governor Dunleavy. Every single candidate pledged to ensure that we’re going to protect your dividend. Not protect the Permanent Fund, but protect your dividend. There is a mantra out there, there is a mindset that is dividend first and foremost.
Miller: And do you think that’s right or wrong?
Murkowski: Well, I tell you, as a born-and-raised Alaskan, one who has received every dividend since they first started coming out in the early ’80s, me and my family have certainly enjoyed that benefit and I appreciate that. But I also recognize that the dividend at the expense of everything else takes us to a place where I’m not sure is healthy for us.
Miller: Gotcha. Well we’ve talked a lot about cuts, but so far as new revenue and coming up with solutions, I guess that brings us to oil and timber and gas. So with oil I did want to point out an article in case you hadn’t seen it, there was an analysis that just got released. It was actually provided to lawmakers right before Dunleavy was sworn in.
Murkowski: I think I saw this, yes.
Miller: So any thoughts on it? So basically the article says hey people who are hoping oil can right away fill the deficit, don’t plan on that. In fact it can even harm the state in the short term, and it will be a long time before we see that impact in a positive way. So when people are saying hey ANWR, ANWR, ANWR, and in fact in the short term that’s actually going to reduce revenue.
Murkowski: Well, this is where I guess I would disagree with the assessment in terms of it will reduce revenues. I do understand that the way that they have outlined it with the credits, that is something that will factor in. But I think what you’re seeing, coming out of the NPRA right now in terms of GMT1, GMT2, Willow, you’ve got the prospects in Pika. All of that is coming online in relatively short order. I think that, there is enough there in terms of volume that I disagree that you will see a loss in revenue. One thing that I think they didn’t fairly articulate, and they do make reference to it here, the effort that we’re seeing coming in, in terms of the jobs and the boost to local property taxes, they say about $3 billion over the next ten. So you’ve got to isolate out what you’re seeing coming in, in terms of the oil into the line, that we then are able to assess those revenues on. But then you have, again, what’s happening up there that allows us to do all this? Well now, the level of jobs that we have up on the Slope, the level of contractors that are coming in to provide for that. And it’s everything from from the guys out on the field, to the cooks in the camp, that ripple effect what it then means to Anchorage, and to Fairbanks. And that I don’t think has fairly been factored in. They’re looking at the analysis what goes into the pipe that’s anticipated, but again, I think you’ve got a much higher volume that is coming on. I just sat down with the folks from Conoco last week, and what we’re seeing in terms of the fines and what they anticipate coming out of the fines. And how soon we’re going to see that into the pipe itself. This is real stuff. So, I think it is a recognition that with NPRA and with ANWR, and in the off-shore. These are not state lands. And so you don’t have the same benefit in terms of the split. That is an absolute true and fair statement. So it’s not going to be revenue wise as significant as our fines on state lands. But look at what’s going on on stateside, too. And look at the near off-shore. That near off-shore is state waters. So that’s to us. That’s not a 50 percent split with the Feds. So there is much to be said about the increase level of activity. The excitement that we’re seeing is unprecedented.
Miller: Right. Do you think I guess in the scheme of things, when you look at the future of ANWR, and as you mentioned this is just getting going, is oil the future?
Murkowski: Well that’s a fair question. Is oil the future?
Miller: And just last week oil dropped another $10, and we saw another article the other day that said oil will never again be $100 a barrel.
Murkowski: But, what nobody is saying is that oil will no longer be needed. The assessment, the analysis for the years on out, is that oil demand is just going to continue to increase. And so, as long as the demand is there, as long as we still have it and have the opportunity to gain the jobs, the revenues, why would we not continue to be a participant in that? In fairness, I’m one that says I think that we need to get the transportation sector off of oil. We can figure this out. Juneau’s a good example of a community that’s seeing more and more electric vehicles all the time. And good reason for that, you’ve got good hydro here.
Miller: Limited road.
Murkowski: Limited road. Really you’re the perfect prototype for demonstrating the possibilities here. You can get your charging stations in. But really, I want us to look toward our energy future. And the energy future for transportation, certainly, is one that will allow for, whether it’s hydrogen-fueled vehicles, or EVs or who knows what the next iteration is. But you’re still going to need oil. We will still need oil. In our lifetimes here, that’s not going away. So we have the resource, we’re developing it responsibly, and with a care for the environment is head and shoulders above what we see coming out of the OPEC nations. So, as long as there’s going to continue to be demand, let’s have this country benefit. Let’s have this state benefit.
Barnes: Speaking on energy and stuff, what are your thoughts on the Green New Deal, do you support it as is?
Miller: The face of it.
Murkowski: Well, I think there’s plenty of time to get into the weeds on the resolution. I don’t know if you’ve actually read the resolution. It is like *makes explosion noise.* It’s not an energy policy, it’s a presidential policy all rolled into one resolution. We’re going to give you free health care. We’re going to give you free education. We’re going to take and get rid of all fossils in ten years, it’s like wow. Eliminate homelessness and you don’t have to go to work, it is an amazing resolution. I am amazed even more so members of Congress just went ahead and signed on to it with such a bare framework because they’ve got to answer for the fact they signed off on something that says we’re going to get rid of fossil fuel in ten years. Now everyone you’re seeing on the late night shows. You’ve got to walk from California to Washington D.C. to go petition your members of Congress because we can’t fly on airplanes, or drive in cars and anyway.
Barnes: Do you see any changes being possible in 10 years, though?
Murkowski: Oh, absolutely. Oh my gosh, yes. This is where I get so excited and geeked out about energy. Because it has been so transformative. In ten years, for the past ten years, I’ve either been the Chairman or the Ranking Member on the Energy Committee, and I’m not saying we did it all, although we did a lot. What has happened in the energy space is extraordinary in terms of the developments that we have seen. Some are still way out in the future. We’re working on something in Alaska with methane hydrates, we’re still way out. But how far we’ve come along with battery storage, what we’re doing here in this state to pioneer and lead on microgrids. Which to get communities off diesel, think of little places like Pelican. If you can get Pelican off diesel, then all the sudden they can make ice, they can have a fishery. You know things happen. What we have been doing on the innovation and the technological advances to allow us to get to that cleaner, greener, safer energy future. I think it’s the most exciting space that we are in right now, it is the energy technologies that are allowing us to make some of this happen. This is where, when it comes to the Green New Deal, if we really want to get serious about this, let’s not get caught up in the gotcha moments. Or something that is so, so, just expansive and improbable, impossible.
Miller: Is that how you view it?
Murkowski: Well, if you’re saying you’re going to be off of fossils in 10 years that’s impossible. That’s impossible. What I worry most about the Green New Deal as it’s been outlined is that it is going to distract us from coming up with creative solutions that will take us to where we all want to get. I want to be in the same place when it comes to energy security and a future that is clean when it comes to our emissions. That is not pie in the sky. That’s something we should be working to or towards.
Miller: Why do you think the deal would prohibit creativity? Wouldn’t it just bring it up and spur more of that innovative thought?
Murkowski: If the directive is you have to eliminate fossil fuels in 10 years, we’ve been working on reducing our reliance on fossil fuels for a long time. We’ve made some good headway with renewables, with things like advanced nuclear. But remember, Green New Deal says no nuclear. I don’t know why they want to go that route because if you really want clean, there’s nothing cleaner than nuclear.
Miller: Have you talked to the Nevada lawmakers to try to get that thing you’ve been wanting?
Murkowski: In fact, what we need to do, we’ve got to deal with the waste piece of nuclear. Because until we do, it’s politically very difficult to get us where we need to get when it comes to advanced nuclear or any of the nuclear waste issues that we have around the country. So that’s something, we’ve got a renewed effort on that. We’re working with the Secretary of Energy. And actually, a very significant event coming up that hasn’t been made public yet, in terms of what we’re doing collaboratively as appropriators and authorizers.
Miller: You can tell us.
Murkowski: Well, we’re really taking this as an issue that must be addressed. So I feel pretty good about that. But to put out a goal that I think is going to divide people, because you’re going to be in the camp of ‘that’s not possible, so we just should never do it’ to ‘you have no imagination and you guys are all dinosaurs.’ In the middle is where we have to meet on this, to be honest about what is that we can do. I know I sound like a name-dropper in saying this, but I’ve had many meetings with Bill Gates, and dinners with other lawmakers and just brainstorming sessions with him. Here’s a guy who’s willing to put down billions of dollars a year, to help advance some of our energy solutions. And he’s telling me that as much as we want to put towards it right now, we’re just not there with battery storage. We’re going to keep working at it, but that’s going to be the key here. And so we want to be honest with people. We need to be honest with people. We need to keep pushing on it, but when you set it up so that it is more about the politics of the goals than attainable policies that we should all be striving for, I think we just kind of lock ourselves in. I think you’re going to see an effort in Congress, on the House side, to really push us on these issues related to climate change and how we address them. And I am not afraid of that at all. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., and I, he’s my ranking member on the energy committee, we’ve already talked about when we’re going to have our first hearing on the issue of some of the climate solutions that are out there. We had an energy technology hearing just last week on what we’ve kind of gotten the pipeline and what’s exciting out there. But it’s these types of things, you’re going to see they have changed the dynamic when it comes to the issue of climate, of climate change. At the end of the day this requires incredible resourcing. Resourcing of human capital, people that really are excited to jump into these issues. Whether it’s how you reduce emissions from your vehicles or a coal-fired power plant, to how we’re going to understand ocean acidification. And then resourcing it. We gotta resource it. So you can’t have people say, well, we don’t need to resource this because it’s not an issue.
Miller: I would like to ask about ferries. I don’t know if you saw Sunday’s paper, but your father wrote an op-ed.
Murkowski: I did, I thought it was fabulous because he has talked to me about this idea so often. And he gets so excited.
Miller: It’s a pretty cool idea. So do you agree with him? Do you think Alaska should more try to attract a more casual traveler? Also, what do you think of the 75 percent proposed cut to the ferry system and should it privatize?
Murkowski: Well, I’m not going to comment on the privatization. I know that the folks with (Alaska Municpal League), the study group, they’ve all been working on that. And been very focused on how we make our ferry system work. You need to remember I grew up in Wrangell and in Ketchikan and Juneau. And for us, ferries were the transportation system. So I have a very soft spot in my heart for the ferries. It practically made me cry to be at the christening ceremony for the Tazlina knowing that we built our own Alaska-class ferry in Ketchikan. This is the way it should be. And so, I take very seriously the fact that you have a marine highway system in this state. And regardless of how flush our state is, we will never have roads that will connect these small coastal communities. We will need a ferry system. And so, how we make sure that system is sustainable I think is key to us. And the idea that my dad has floated, again I’ve been hearing about it for some time, keep in mind, he and my mom, they’ve traveled the world. They lived in Washington, D.C. for 20 years. Their retirement home is in Wrangell. They see that ferry go by their house once a day, sometimes more than once a day going northbound, going southbound. This is how families used to move. And it troubles me that our system is now not reliable in the sense of being able to plan on the schedule. And it’s expensive. And we’re losing this as the mode of transportation. So, I think his proposal to attract more users, cause there’s only so many people that live in Wrangell and Petersburg and Juneau, to bring up the casual tourist. We get great benefit from our cruise ships. It’s great. I love them all. But what you really love are the people who come in to your towns, who are just kind of wandering through, who are not part of a package but are able to sit down at the cafe and say hey, is there a local hiking trail around here? Or what do you guys do on a Saturday night? These are the types of people that I would love to have explore this place. And it’s beautiful. If people here in Juneau haven’t had an opportunity to cruise around the roads on POW. Every five miles you see deer, or porcupines wandering across the road, and it’s beautiful. It’s stunning. So could it be done? Yes. Does it require a little bit of imagination? Yes. Is it going to require some marketing? Yes. Because people don’t know what it is we have here. But you talk to to that independent traveler, you talk to the casual traveler, who comes up on the ferry, they’ll tell you how much they love it. Maybe almost as much as those of us who grew up here and relied on that ferry. So I don’t want to see our ferries go away, I know it’s a struggle. But I know we’ve got really, super-committed people to try to help work through some of these issues. I think having Shirley Marquardt, who’s been out in Dutch Harbor for so many years, it’s not like they got daily service out to Dutch, but they rely on their service, as well. So it goes from Ketchikan all the way out to the Aleutian Chain. I’m a big fan. I’m glad, he didn’t tell me he was going to be running that. We talked about it at Christmas. And I’m like if you’re so strong on that you need to get off of your soap box and write the Empire.
Miller: If I could ask one more question, how is the relationship with Trump?
Murkowski: Well, you know, when was the last time I was over to visit him Karina?
Communications Director Karina Borger (Petersen): I’m thinking about when you were there when everybody hopped in the car. It was in December. I think it was shutdown related.
Murkowski: I continue to be invited to go to the White House to meet with the president, which means I have to assume that he values my opinion. We have, I think a very strong working relationship with the various secretaries, whether it’s the Secretary of Labor, who came up. I was going back and forth with Linda McMahon at SBA working on earthquake stuff. My good friends over at Interior and working with EPA on some PFAS related stuff. So we are I think doing well with the administration. You know, it’s not to say that I don’t get my little shout-outs every now and again, but we’re doing fine.
Editor’s note: The Empire interviewed U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan too. A full transcript of that interview will be published soon.
• Contact reporter Mollie Barnes at email@example.com or 523-2228.