Delegation's deal-making pays off for Southeast power grid

Posted: Friday, October 20, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- In congressional deal-making, getting from Point A to Point B isn't always a straight line. Such was the case this week when Alaska Sen. Frank Murkowski and Rep. Don Young won approval of a $384 million authorization for an electrical power grid for Southeast Alaska.

The line would eventually connect all the major towns from Ketchikan to Juneau. It is intended to attract industry by boosting power supplies, and it could also replace diesel generation with cheaper power from hydroelectric projects.

The Clinton administration opposed the expenditure when legislation sponsored by Murkowski, a Republican, came before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which he heads, last spring.

Even after the measure squeaked out of the committee in June, the panel's senior Democrat, New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, criticized it. Among his concerns was the fact that the bill called for no contribution from the state.

Critics also say the line would carve wide swaths out of protected timber stands in the Tongass National Forest. They suggest underwater cables between islands, increased conservation, and alternative generation such as fuel cells and local hydroelectric projects.

Murkowski's legislation was in danger of going no further until last week. That's when Murkowski and Young, Republican chairman of the House Resources Committee, realized they could cut deals with the Democrats.

First came a trade between Murkowski and Bingaman. Murkowski agreed to amend his provision so the state would be required to pick up 20 percent of the transmission network's cost. Murkowski also agree to attach his bill the New Mexican's legislation for a five-year, $75 million electrification project for the Navajo Indians in his state.

That greased the skids for Senate passage of the bill Oct. 5, by voice vote.

In the House, Young had bottled up legislation sought by Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., to compensate Sioux Indians in his state $291 million for land-taking 50 years ago.

Young cut a deal with Daschle to add the Sioux compensation to a package of legislation including Murkowski's Southeast Alaska transmission line.

Because the Clinton administration supports the Indian provisions in the fast-growing package, administration concerns about the Alaska project no longer stood in the way of President Clinton signing the deal.

The entire package still had to get out of the House Commerce Committee. That panel's chairman, Rep. Tom Bliley, R-Va., had his own project in mind: revising the boundaries around a Civil War battlefield park near Richmond.

With Bliley's provision added, a deal was ready for the House floor this week. But by then the package had been renamed. No longer was Congress enacting the Southeast Alaska transmission line authorization act. It was approving the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Equitable Compensation Act, of which the Alaska project was just a slice.

The price tag of the total package had zoomed from $384 million for the Alaska project to more than $750 million.

Outside Congress, environmentalist and taxpayer groups cried foul.

Taxpayers for Common Sense circulated a letter to House members to oppose the legislation because it would ''authorize appropriations for the construction of an industrial power grid through the Tongass National Forest.''

The League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club joined forces on a similar letter to House members, saying the legislation ''will irrevocably damage some of the Tongass National Forest's wildest places.''

But by the time the letters were circulated, the political deals had been cut.

The measure was approved on voice vote Wednesday night by the House. The Alaska power line was hardly mentioned.

Murkowski hailed the victory in a press release, calling the House vote ''another big step'' toward construction of the transmission line, for which more than $20 million has already been appropriated.

But others saw it as a remarkable use of power by the two Alaska committee chairmen.

''They coupled this bill with some good legislation,'' said Matthew Davidson of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. ''It's that time of the year. But sidestepping the congressional system to get this is not in the best interests of Alaska.''

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