U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, center, is greeted by Sen. Anna MacKinnon, R-Eagle River, left, and Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, after her speech to a joint session of the Alaska Legislature at the Capitol on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, center, is greeted by Sen. Anna MacKinnon, R-Eagle River, left, and Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, after her speech to a joint session of the Alaska Legislature at the Capitol on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Sen. Murkowski offers optimism for state mired in recession and deficit

This is Lisa Murkowski, victorious.

On Thursday morning, Murkowski addressed to a joint session of the Alaska Legislature and delivered a 30-minute ray of optimism. To a body concerned with a $2.5 billion annual deficit, high unemployment and an economy in recession, Murkowski was Santa Claus bringing gifts.

“It was a good year for us. We had a good year as a state because we opened up ANWR,” she said to a round of applause from lawmakers and a crowded gallery of guests.

Murkowski said Alaska has sought to open the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for 37 years, but it finally happened this year.

“We never gave up; we kept the faith, and we finally succeeded. And now access to the 1002 area is law. It is in law. That is significant,” she said.

With a Republican president, Republican majorities in the U.S. House and Senate, and Murkowski in a controlling position as chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Alaska’s senior senator has been able to guide the state’s three-person Congressional delegation to success on a swath of state priorities, and she spelled them out to lawmakers who already know them: Hundreds of millions of dollars in military spending for Interior Alaska, new oil production from the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, highway funding through a Congressional bill, federal tax cuts, new Coast Guard cutters, money for rural energy projects, land exchanges that open formerly federal land to development, the King Cove Road, and offshore oil and gas development in federal waters.

Murkowski made an analogy to the weather, saying February can “be a little bit of a dark and gloomy time of year,” but then added, “when you think about all of these (projects) … we’ve got glimmers of spring all around us.”

Alaska’s senior U.S. Senator cautioned lawmakers that although the accomplishments of the past year are good from her perspective, they are only the end of the beginning.

“The reality is we are wading through the slush of early spring, and we’ve got to get through that,” she said with references to impending lawsuits and the permitting hurdles that inevitably follow resource development.

Murkowski also alluded to Alaska’s state budget crisis by saying lawmakers must “consider carefully how your actions and policies attract investment and ensure stability.”

She asked lawmakers to work together to promote “state-level advocacy” for economic growth and said “we need to be speaking with one voice at the national level,” a comment that may have been a nod to disagreements on proposed legislative resolutions regarding marijuana, oil drilling, and other topics.

“Find the good,” Murkowski told lawmakers. “Let’s recognize that our opportunities in this state are immense and we have to work together to not only protect them but advance them.”

Murkowski spoke about the problems of delivering effective and affordable health care, saying “there is no simple fix” and that a solution is “going to take a combination of policies at the local level, the state level and the federal level.”

She said that there is also not a simple fix for the opioid addiction crisis and the epidemic of mass shootings.

The problems with the latter issue were exemplified after Murkowski opened the floor to questions from lawmakers. One came from Rep. Adam Wool, D-Fairbanks, who asked Murkowski what she suggests should be done to deal with incidents like the school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

“Our country does not have a monopoly on mental illness, but we do have a monopoly on mass shootings,” Wool said.

Murkowski offered a lengthy response touching on the need for more security, better information sharing about problem individuals, and improved communication about solving the problem.

Neither she nor Wool mentioned the word “gun” in the several minutes they devoted to their question and answer.

In a press conference held after the speech, Murkowski was pressed on why she didn’t discuss guns to answer a question about a mass shooting. She responded that the issue of mass shootings is “a multi, multi-headed issue that we’re dealing with,” and warned against trying to find a simple solution that solely blames a type of gun or the National Rifle Association, which has been the focus of particular criticism since the shooting.

“If we put ourselves in a situation where it’s the NRA vs. the rest of the world, have we really gotten to the root of what we’re dealing with?” she said.

Murkowski did not address marijuana issues during her speech, but in response to a question from Associated Press reporter Becky Bohrer, said she does not expect the federal government to reschedule marijuana on the list of federally controlled substances. She acknowledged that a recent change in policy by Attorney General Jeff Sessions has created “confusion (and) uncertainty that is not good,” but went on to explain that Congress must address the disparity between states that have legalized marijuana, and the federal government, which deems it illegal.

She also did not touch on Russian interference in American elections but said it “is something I’m worried about.”

She added that Alaskans should be bothered. “It has been made clear that they’ve had their fingers in our elections. If that doesn’t bother you, I don’t know what does,” she said.

Asked whether she’s heard of any interest from oil companies who might pursue drilling in ANWR, Murkowski shared the story of an oil executive who told her that in his wildest dreams, he never thought it would be available.

“We’re now living our wildest dreams,” Murkowski said. “I’m living the dream.”

• Contact reporter James Brooks at jbrooks@juneauempire.com or call 523-2258.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, greets legislators after her annual speech to a joint session of the Alaska Legislature at the Capitol on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, greets legislators after her annual speech to a joint session of the Alaska Legislature at the Capitol on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

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