U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski challenges the Alaska State Legislature to “right the ship” by taking necessary action to secure federal funds for ferries, infrastructure and other needs during her annual speech Wednesday at the Alaska State Capitol. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski challenges the Alaska State Legislature to “right the ship” by taking necessary action to secure federal funds for ferries, infrastructure and other needs during her annual speech Wednesday at the Alaska State Capitol. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Murkowski gives Legislature ‘tough love’ in speech

U.S. senator asks state lawmakers to make federal funds count in speech.

Alaska has been given a lot recently and in return state lawmakers were asked by U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski to make the most of it in her annual speech Wednesday to the Alaska State Legislature, emphasizing it’s largely up to them to ensure opportunities for better ferries, infrastructure, security and other essentials are realized.

“Maybe I overstepped a bit with the Legislature today — normally I don’t tell them how to do their job,” she said after a nearly hour-long “tough love” speech and 20 minutes of responding to questions from state lawmakers.

But during her speech and in a media availability afterward she spoke fervently about embracing a visionary future — saying “we’re kind of in a lull in believing in our potential — and acknowledging that will require courage and sacrifice.”

“I’ll just say it: if this Legislature spends the whole 33rd legislative agenda focusing on how much Alaskans are going to be getting for a Permanent Fund dividend we miss everything,” she said during a media briefing after the speech. “We need leadership, we need to have these dreams and we need to be doing it together.”

Murkowski’s foremost challenge to the Legislature in terms of specific actions was approving matching funds required to secure the $285 million in federal funds designated for improvements to the Alaska Marine Highway System.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, walks toward the state House chambers to address a joint session of the Alaska State Legislature in the state Capitol. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

“I made sure that people understood in our great state we’re not well connected by roads — that’s why our ports are so important,” she said during her speech. “And as we worked through the infrastructure bill, I made sure that marine highways were included. I’ve done what I can on this, but now it’s up to you to bring it home.”

Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who during his first term made significant cuts to ferry funding, last week proposed providing the matching funds by having the state make its first-ever attempt to use attempt to use federal “toll” funds, which essentially are credits based on fees collected from essential transporation systems. Murkowski, when asked after her speech if she believes such an effort is proper, said it will be a topic of extensive discussion with Dunleavy and others at the Alaska State Capitol this week.

“These kinds of discussions are one of the reasons, quite honestly, that I’ve got such a big team with me here in Alaska,” she said. “I think I have two meetings this afternoon with lawmakers. and their teams and mine, and talking about the funding for the Alaska Marine Highway System. I’ve got a meeting tomorrow, again focused solely on the Alaska Marine Highway System and how we move forward. I meant it when I said this is shared responsibility. I’ve worked hard to bring federal dollars to the table, to give Alaska some breathing room to right this ship.

“So I’m doing something I don’t typically do. You typically send the federal resources and then you kind of step away. I want to make sure these dollars that are on the table in the five-year infrastructure bill are going to be there support the marine highway system. This is our opportunity. This is our shot. Let’s not screw it up.”

Murkowski, opening her speech in usual form in her 20th year as a senator, highlighted accomplishments by Alaska’s congressional delegation during the past year, most notably $3.2 billion in federal infrastructure funds for a wide range of purposes. She also referred to about $750 million in earmarks in the recent omnibus budget bill that will go toward about 200 projects such as local water and sanitation upgrades, housing for abuse victims, and boosting health services in remote communities.

“I know there are criticisms of earmarks, but these allocations come from across the political spectrum, are fully transparent, within budget caps, did not increase spending levels, and these federal dollars would have gone elsewhere had we not fought to bring them back to Alaska,” she said.

Murkowski, doubling down on her support of earmarks, noted her website portal for requests for the coming year is open until March 17 — and that such requests aren’t limited just to online users or people able to visit her offices in person.

She also highlighted the smaller day-to-day constituent matters she called an essential function, stating her office responded to about 8,000 individuals seeking assistance with everything from passport renewals to missing Social Security payments.

“It seems like nobody contacts their senator’s office until like three days before that critical trip and they realize their passport’s expired,” she said. “That’s where we come in. It’s not the sexy stuff that makes the headlines, but…every one of those was important — as were our legislative accomplishments.”

But perhaps one-third of way through her speech she pivoted to the “tough love” portion, prefacing it by noting “as sunny a day as it is (outside), there’s also this next part of my speech which is perhaps not so sunny.”

A decade of outmigration and economic turbulence, along with recovery from COVID-19 impacts that lag behind every state except one, means an increased challenge for lawmakers in reversing those trends, Murkowski said.

“Alaska cannot settle for being 49th in anything but statehood,” she said, “We cannot be a place where people spend part of their lives only to pack up and leave because they don’t see a future for themselves or for their family.”

The state also faces increasing threats such as environmental changes that are endangering resources such as fisheries, political storms that seek to limit resource production such as oil, and hostile foreign intrusions that recently have approached and sometimes crossed Alaska’s boundaries, Murkowski said.

“In a very short time period Americans have seen how China is a threat, how Russia is on our doorstep and how North Korea is lurking out there,” she said. “We know Alaska is increasingly America’s first line of defense, and I am more thankful than ever for those who serve and keep us safe.”

“When you threaten Alaska’s sovereignty you threaten the nation’s sovereignty and we will respond.”

• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com

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