Congress returns to work today, and the next week or two in the Senate likely will see important movement in favor of those hoping to open a slice of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration.
Members of +Alaska+'s congressional delegation, thwarted for years in their drive to allow responsible development in the coastal plain of the refuge, may soon try to work ANWR-opening language into a spending resolution in the Senate Budget Committee. Republicans hold a 12-11 edge on the committee, and the dozen GOP members appear to be on +Alaska+'s side in this area.
But there's still a ways to go -- a vote on the Senate floor and a vote on a budget reconciliation bill to bring it all together -- so development's fate won't be known until the late summer or early fall, when the first real snow is already settling up north.
In the Senate, just 51 votes are needed to approve budget resolutions and reconciliation bills. Filibusters, which cannot be curtailed with anything less than 60 votes, are not allowed on such measures.
Heading into the 2004 election, however, positions should not be taken for granted.
That's why it is important that state funding continue for the lobbying group Arctic Power.
In the +Alaska+ Legislature, the House Finance Committee earlier this month put forward a bill to grant $3 million to Arctic Power for a campaign to shore up wavering senators and perhaps convert others. The target list is fairly short: Gov. Frank Murkowski last month counted 48 firm supporters.
But with only two or three additional senators needed, the governor believes $3 million might be too much money for the state to give. He argues for responsible and targeted use of state funds and doesn't, as his spokesman said, want to take $3 million and just ''throw it at the problem.'' He also wants to make sure Arctic Power is getting all it can from other sources.
In these tight budget times, the governor is rightly demonstrating some restraint in an area near and dear to his beliefs and to +Alaska+'s livelihood yet keeping the pressure on Congress. In this area, the Legislature should follow his lead.
Here's a cautionary tale about campaign rhetoric and governing reality:
Gov. Frank Murkowski ran as a tightfisted candidate who would cut the budget and grow the state out of its gaping fiscal hole. Fair enough. But as governor, with real responsibilities at hand, he has just offered a supplemental budget request of $63.3 million. He called it a ''bare bones'' amount because it's less than half the $140 million anticipated in earlier estimates.
But this is the second-largest supplemental budget request of the last decade. If passed, it will increase this year's general fund budget by about 2.5 percent. And that doesn't even count the $55 million that will be needed for Medicaid if the state loses a pending dispute with the federal government.
This is what happens when campaign rhetoric meets the reality of running government. We'll see now whether Republican legislative budget hawks respond to a governor from their own party with big-spender blasts similar to those leveled at Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles in previous years.
Much as he may want to cut spending, large chunks of the supplemental request are beyond Gov. Murkowski's control. A big fire season required $13.3 million more than expected. Another $24 million is needed to cover a second cut in +Alaska+'s share of federal Medicaid funds. Medicaid caseloads increased, for an extra cost of $3.4 million.
Some of the large supplemental spending request is driven by creative accounting. The budget the Legislature passes in May routinely short-funds some programs to bolster claims that it is holding down spending. The missing money is restored in the supplemental appropriation during the next session, when it doesn't draw as much attention. This year's supplemental includes $5 million to cover short-funding of adult public assistance and legal counsel for indigent defendants.
Candidate Murkowski blasted Gov. Knowles for unpopular cuts in road maintenance and said he would find a way to restore the services. He did, all right -- but not by squeezing the money from existing budgets. Gov. Murkowski's supplemental request adds money for road maintenance.
The state will save some money in this year's budget but not from budget-cutting prowess. School enrollments are less than expected, saving $6.7 million. School debt reimbursement requests were unexpectedly low as well, saving another $6.4 million.
Gov. Murkowski may be able to make a bigger mark on state spending when he submits a full budget for the fiscal year that starts in June. But at this point, his promise to cut spending has collided with the reality of running a growing state that has growing needs. Thankfully, reality has won out.
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