Alaska projects cut, added in federal budget

Posted: Monday, February 24, 2003

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Congress shaved millions of dollars from Alaska projects before it passed the omnibus federal spending bill last week.

However, though lawmakers faced a demand from President Bush to hold spending down, they also added several never-before-seen items, ranging from $10 million for road improvements in Girdwood to $300,000 for diverting water toward Harding Lake south of Fairbanks.

The subtractions, additions and revelations are in a massive document that pays for 11 federal departments through Oct. 1. It is the work of a House-Senate conference committee assigned the task of completing a single bill that could attract enough votes to pass in each house.

Bush signed the bill Friday.

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, secured approval of the Senate version of the bill in late January. He warned at the time that the bill would suffer across-the-board cuts in the conference committee to meet Bush's budget targets.

Many Alaska projects did indeed take a cut. One of the biggest removed $10 million from a $20 million Alaska fish marketing program Stevens had proposed. The money comes from a pre-existing federal account administered by the Commerce Department, the Saltonstall-Kennedy fund.

Fisheries disaster aid survived untouched at $35 million. The money will go to the state within 30 days.

The Denali Commission, which funnels money toward rural health and economic development projects, took small hits in two budget categories. It lost $4.5 million, leaving it with about $78.5 million in direct appropriations under the bill.

Despite the backward slide, the commission's 2003 take from the two sources is up almost $20 million from the previous fiscal year. The commission also receives funding from other federal sources that will put its annual budget over $100 million.

Stevens' other major rural development initiatives, all in the Agriculture Department's budget, survived without major cuts. The Village Safe Water Program has $30 million. The Rural Utilities Service has $30 million for energy grants to rural villages where electricity costs more than twice the national average. The RUS also has $10 million for loans and grants to spread Internet service, mostly in rural Alaska.

A $15 million grant to the Alaska Federation of Natives to combat alcohol abuse survived intact, though $100,000 must go to an ''independent third party'' to evaluate the program. And at least $5 million must go to Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium for the Counselor in Every Village program.

Scattered throughout the bill are dozens of cuts to smaller programs.

In the Transportation Department section, the conference committee took $1 million off Stevens' effort to get lighting to rural airports, leaving $10 million.

Also, the Alaska Railroad's appropriation dropped from a proposed $25 million to $22 million.

In the Justice Department budget, the $2 million Stevens sought to bolster the state's village public safety officer program lost $500,000. Gone also is $1 million for a Web-based corrections offender information system.

The Alaska Federal Health Care Access Network telemedicine project will receive $3.5 million, down from $4 million. In the Interior Department's budget, money for a South Denali park visitor center plan is gone, though $3.17 million to complete the new visitor center at Denali National Park headquarters survived.

A program to catalog Alaska's minerals dropped from $4 million to $2.5 million. Money for the Bureau of Land Management to buy private land along Beaver Creek northwest of Fairbanks was axed. Money to carry out a new Yukon River salmon management treaty with Canada dropped from $4 million to $3 million.

Offsetting cuts were some substantial new items, including the $300,000 to divert water to Harding Lake. Levels in the lake, a popular recreation area and summer home spot southeast of Fairbanks, have been dropping. The money would build a structure to redirect a creek into the lake.

Another $10 million will pave streets and improve bike and walking routes in Girdwood southeast of Anchorage at the base of the Alyeska Ski Resort slopes. Stevens owns a home in the town, though it's not located in the area to be improved.

The final bill also carries $2 million for preliminary work on a bridge from Ketchikan to its airport across Tongass Narrows on Gravina Island. That money was not in the Senate bill, but Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, got it in the House version and the conference committee kept it.

Also boosted in conference was funding for the Arctic Energy Office at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. It went up $500,000, to $5.5 million. The new law carries this language: ''Within the $2 million provided for Alaska gas pipeline research at the Arctic Energy Office, $500,000 is to be used for a study of a pipeline spur from Anchorage to Fairbanks.''

In Anchorage, the Rasmuson Foundation received $1.4 million from the conference committee to provide housing to abused women and children and people coming out of alcohol and drug treatment.

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