Assembly delegation optimistic about trip

Posted: Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Despite a growing national deficit and the rising cost of war in Iraq, the Kenai Peninsula Borough should see a fair share of federal dollars in the coming fiscal year, members of an assembly delegation said after returning from a recent two-day lobbying trip to Washington, D.C.

"I'm still cautiously optimistic," said borough assembly President Pete Sprague of Sol-dotna.

"Yes, there is more expense and a federal deficit, but we still have needs locally, and we still need to bring our priorities to the congressional delegation."

Who that delegation is remains important. The positions held by Rep. Don Young and Sen. Ted Stevens should help funnel federal dollars to Alaska and the Kenai Peninsula even in the face of the fiscal crunch, Sprague said.

During an earlier borough mission to the nation's capital in March, assembly members were encouraged to focus attention toward the most important projects on the borough's wish list. On July 10 and 11, Sprague and assembly member Ron Long of Seward met with the borough's capital lobbyist, Steve Silver, who said the borough had done a good job prioritizing those projects.

"The (congressional) delegation was happy to see that," Long said. "They had asked other communities to do the same thing. Some did, but most did not. We are in a good position back there."

While Long also expressed some optimism, he was somewhat less sanguine than Sprague about federal appropriations coming the peninsula's way. He attributed that to the cost of the war, as well as the rising deficit, which has begun reacting to recent federal tax cuts.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the deficit could reach $400 billion this year. Meanwhile, the war in and occupation of Iraq already has cost American taxpayers better than $70 billion, according to the CBO, and that cost is rising by roughly $2,000 each second. The CBO reported recently that the gross federal debt at the end of 2003 would be an estimated $6.29 trillion.

Money is tight. That was the message Sprague and Long said they heard.

"We didn't hear so much about the debt, but we did about the expense of the war," Sprague said. "There was mention that the war may impact domestic spending."

"We're probably not going to see much money for community centers this time around," Long predicted, noting the half-dozen community center construction or upgrade projects on the borough's wish list.

While in Washington, the two also met with John Katz in Gov. Frank Murkowski's D.C. office where he is director of state and federal relations and special counsel.

"He was encouraging," Long said. "He told us our timing was perfect. There had been a logjam in the House, but that had broken and bills were moving."

Long said Katz told them House and Senate committees and subcommittees were engaged in marking up various bills. They were advised that the borough should continue its quest for state matching dollars and letters of support for various projects from state officials.

Transportation is a key element of the borough's wish list. Top priorities include the Lowell Point Road near Seward, the Nikiski Emergency Escape Route, development of a road system on the west side of Cook Inlet and the Williamsport-Pile Bay Road upgrades.

But how much money might be available is in question.

Congress is wrestling with a $375 billion highway bill, the Transportation Equity Act renewal called TEA-21, an omnibus package of transportation projects. Among the issues at the heart of the debate is a gasoline tax Young is pushing. Young is chair of the House Transportation and Infra-structure Committee.

That tax would increase the national gasoline levy from 18.4 cents per gallon to about 33 cents a gallon over the next six years, focusing the revenue on transportation projects.

So far, the tax has run into opposition from other conservative Republicans and the Bush administration.

According to Sprague, how much states get from the transportation bill in the next federal fiscal year could depend on whether the transportation spending plan is reauthorized, or whether the current law is merely extended. Either way, he said, the borough should see some transportation funding.

There are things the borough still can do to improve its chances, Long said.

"We should do a preliminary environmental assessment on the west-side development project to speed things up," he said.

Long said the assembly delegation got a somewhat mixed message when it came to emergency response funding. He said Stevens' staff told the borough it should apply for emergency equipment funding through the Fire Grant Program or through the Federal Emergency Management Administration.

Katz, on the other hand, said that Homeland Security Administration money should be freeing up nationwide shortly, and that money would be available for community police and fire programs.

Long said he would recommend that the borough seek funding along both tracks.

As far as promises on individual projects, Long and Sprague returned empty handed.

"We didn't get any yeses or nos," Long said. "No one could really promise us anything."

Long said they were able to meet with Young in his office face to face, and they met briefly with Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the foyer of the Senate. Stevens had been tied up in committee meetings or floor votes for the two days they were there, he said.

"We spent plenty of time with all their staffers," he said.

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