By Libby Casey
Senator Lisa Murkowski and her Republican colleagues are in a political tight spot because of a member of their party. Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning is single-handedly blocking the short-term extension of unemployment benefits and other popular measures.
That’s raised the ire of Democrats like Senator Mark Begich and scored them political talking-points, while Republicans haven’t weighed in much on how to proceed.
Programs that expired over the weekend include long term unemployment benefits, health care subsidies for the unemployed, highway funds, and a measure that boosted Medicare payments to doctors.
In Alaska, the halt in federal highway money means two projects are on-hold: construction on Coffman Cove Dock and a road cleanup project in the Tongass National Forest. The federal highway employees overseeing the projects are on furlough.
At this point Alaska’s transportation projects with federal funding aren’t being affected, according to Jeff Ottesen, the Alaska Department of Transportation’s director of program development. He says the state is not getting a weekly federal reimbursement to the tune of about $4-million, but the money should eventually come in once Congress moves forward. In the meantime, Ottesen says the projects are proceeding with state funds.
What’s affecting state managed projects is, we’re still able to do the work, what’s being delayed is that reimbursement process.
Ottesen says, however, that D-O-T cannot move forward on new projects. That’s because employees in the Juneau office of the Federal Highway Administration are furloughed, and can’t give them the green-light.
For projects that we need approval to start, either a design start or a construction start, we’ll keep sending them over there, but basically they’ll be in their mailbox waiting for them to return to work.
Ottesen says as long as Congress moves forward soon, things will be fine – but if the stalemate lasts more than a week or 10 days, there could be problems because of the looming spring construction season.
The biggest fear right now is we’ll be unable to get projects that need to go to bid, in order to take advantage of the full length of the construction season that will be delayed.
Senator Bunning says he’s blocking the federal funding because he wants the 10 billion dollar aid package before the Senate paid for with stimulus funds, rather than adding to the national debt. Senator Lisa Murkowski has not responded to requests for comment on Bunning’s action.