Assembly members get no promises

Washington trip helpful, not fruitful

Posted: Wednesday, March 10, 2004

No promises. That's what a contingent of Kenai Peninsula Bor-ough Assembly members heard from the Alaska congressional delegation last week during a trip to the nation's capital.

"There was a bit of a harder line on available funds, which doesn't come as a surprise to anyone, I don't think," said assembly President Pete Sprague of Sol-dotna. "When we go down at this time of year, there are never any promises or guarantees, but it gives us a chance to present our priorities and to answer any questions the delegation might have for us."

Joining Sprague on the trip were Ron Long of Seward and Betty Glick of Kenai. Glick remained through the initial weekend and all three attended sessions of the National Association of Counties convention that was scheduled at that time.

Sprague and Long stayed on for two more days last week and met with Rep. Don Young, Sen. Ted Stevens and Sen. Lisa Murkowski and their respective staffs, along with John Katz, the governor's director of state and federal relations in Washington, D.C.

They lobbied the congressional delegation for funding for a host of borough and peninsula city projects, including salmon branding, flood plain mapping, construction of an emergency operations center, outfitting various service areas with emergency equipment and continuing efforts at cleaning up the Sterling ZipMart fuel spill.

They also sought support for the borough's list of key priorities, including construction of a natural gas pipeline, completion of Cook Inlet Outer Continental Shelf Lease Sales 191 and 199, annual federal funding for Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council and improved and expanded vocational and technical training programs.

"Our delegation said that our preparation and presentation was as good as they've seen," Sprague said, noting that after preparing wish lists of capital projects and borough policy priorities for several years, borough officials have the process well refined.

"It was a pretty good trip," Long said Monday. "But we got no promises. We didn't come back with the world on a silver platter."

Highway funding was among the hottest topics, he said.

"There was quite a bit of discussion over the transportation authorization bill," Long said.

Currently, there are three competing proposals.

The U.S. Senate is considering a transportation spending reauthorization bill that includes about $311 billion over six years. Young, chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, favors a House version that would spend $375 billion over the same period and include an increase in the gasoline tax to help pay for it. The president unveiled his transportation measure last May, calling for about $247 billion in highway spending. Long said President George W. Bush has threatened to veto any bill more than $250 billion.

"There are varying opinions on whether that would happen," he said.

Whether a transportation bill will pass during an election year is a good question, Long suggested. An extension of the existing plan may have a better chance, putting off adoption of a full six-year measure until after November.

The borough also voiced its support for Alaska resource development, funding for the Denali Commission, as well as its opposition to unfunded federal mandates, such as the No Child Left Behind education program.

"Murkowski and Katz gave us some encouragement over No Child Left Behind," Long said, adding he was told there may be some funding coming down the pike, or perhaps deadline extensions or exemptions from the act's provisions while it is being reviewed by Congress.

On flood plain mapping, Long said Stevens suggested the borough seek funding in more than one place. Currently, the borough is requesting money through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Stevens said the U.S. Geological Survey might be another source.

Long also said an energy bill under consideration in Congress has some $17 million earmarked for the state for work force development. Long said the borough is "pretty well positioned" to get some of that money if it survives in the final bill, largely due to the existence of facilities such as Kenai Peninsula College and the Alaska Vocational and Technical Center in Seward.

The mood at the National Association of Counties convention appeared to reflect the financial struggles facing municipalities across the nation, Glick said. She is the Alaska representative to the NACo board of directors and is on the board of NACo's 15-state Western Interstate Region.

"Many that used to send large contingents to (NACo) meetings have cut down drastically (on the size of their delegations)," she said. "In addition, some counties are hurting enough financially that they no longer are participating with NACo because of the dues. They are looking for cuts anywhere they can find them."

Leading the list of concerns among municipal leaders are federal unfunded mandates, she said.

"We are the front line of implementing these rules and regulations, but we don't get the funding to implement them fully," she said. "It puts us between a rock and a hard place."

NACo delegates adopted several interim resolutions that will be reviewed again in July, she said. Most of them address issues now before Congress. Among those that might affect the borough is one urging Congress to increase funding for emergency management performance grants, another is to fully fund a firefighters' assistance grant program, and a third one asks Congress to re-establish a federal Emergency Medical Services office and to implement sustained funding for enhanced EMS response capacity for acts of terrorism.

Glick said that during a meeting of the Western Interstate Region, she learned that President Bush had included $226 million in his budget for the Payment in Lieu of Taxes, or PILT, program. The Kenai Peninsula Borough appears to be in line for about $1.5 million in the package, she said.

She also noted NACo's support for federal highway project funding.



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