WASHINGTON — For weeks, Alaskans have been vocal about letting their elected representatives know exactly what it is they want from the $789 billion economic stimulus bill Congress is poised to pass. Many have even traveled to Washington to make their voices heard.
"All last week, we would have different groups come in, whether it is people advocating for Head Start and Child Care, to folks from Chevak. Everybody kind of wants to know: 'What would be in it for us' " said Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who despite the pleas, intends to vote against the stimulus package.
Exactly how much money Alaska will receive remains unclear – the state is "just operating by wild rumors at this point in time," Murkowski said.
Although there's a deal on the bill and the House of Representatives could vote on it this morning, House and Senate negotiators were still ironing out final details on the package Thursday evening. Based on the most recent White House estimates, the stimulus proposal could save or create as many as 8,000 jobs in Alaska.
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Most of the tax provisions in the bill are final, including a tax credit worth $8,000 for first-time home buyers and another that allows new-car buyers to deduct state and local sales taxes on the purchase from their federal income taxes. There's also a $400 tax credit for people making less than $75,000 a year.
But congressional committees on Thursday evening still hadn't released numbers detailing how much money Alaska and other states will receive in one of the areas governors care about most: what's known as the state stabilization fund. That money, which is designed to close gaps in state education budgets, could bring Alaska up to $152 million, if negotiators lean toward the higher House version of the bill.
During a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Gov. Sarah Palin estimated that Alaska could receive about $1 billion total in stimulus money. That money will go toward a number of areas, according to estimates from the National Governor's Association. For Alaska, between $216 and $245 million could go toward covering increased Medicaid costs; and as much as $238 million could go toward infrastructure investment.
"On the whole, those things that are good for the state, we will appreciate those dollars coming in as an addition to our economy," Palin said Wednesday, adding that the state has concerns about accepting some stimulus money if it means that after the federal money dries up in two years, "the state will have to pick up the tab."
"Nothing's off the table," Palin said. "We just have to make sure everything that would be targeted to our state ... we have to make sure those make sense for Alaska in the long run."
Although Murkowski doesn't intend to vote for the stimulus package, she said she does like some provisions in it, including money that could help pay for hospitals in Barrow and Nome. She said she has told groups such as the Alaska Federation of Natives to "get your grant writers ready" despite her own trepidations about the bill.
"I'm looking at what is moving forward now," Murkowski said. "The votes are clearly there for passage of the economic stimulus. And I think our job now is to do our darnedest to make sure the dollars are being directed to the agencies, out to the states, that we really ensure that there's a level of accountability, and to the fullest extent possible, that we're making sure that those dollars are being spent in a matter that's going to help people."
As the package made its way through the Senate, Democrats targeted Murkowski as a potential supporter of the stimulus package. As recently as Thursday afternoon, one of her Democratic colleagues cornered her and asked her whether she might reconsider her position, Murkowski said. Three other Republican senators have crossed party lines to vote for the measure, ensuring that Democratic leaders in the Senate have the 60 votes needed to pass it.
But Murkowski said Thursday she continues to have concerns about the way money is spent in the bill. Many of the projects are worthy spending, she said, but in the budget bill, not a stimulus proposal designed to spur immediate spending that will create new jobs.
"I don't think Alaskans or Americans are really going to be that upset if they believe that you're going to be spending the money wisely, and if the money is really going to be directed in a manner that will be helpful," she said. "And I think this is where we've lost the confidence."
She said she also has some concerns about the overall cost of the bill, especially when coupled with the $700 billion cost of the bank bailout.
Both Murkowski and her Democratic counterpart, Sen. Mark Begich, attended meetings of Senate centrists, who worked to craft a compromise bill that satisfied conservative Democrats and more moderate Republicans. Begich, who asked mayors and other civic leaders in Alaska to submit projects they'd like to see funded in the infrastructure portion of the bill, intends to vote for the proposal.