By Libby Casey
The Essential Air Service Program that subsidizes flights to rural Alaska is safe – for now. Arizona Senator John McCain’s attempt to kill the program’s funding died in the Senate today. McCain’s amendment was tabled on a vote of 61 to 38.
He targeted the program as a way to save money, even though it would’ve meant losing funds for airports in his home state. The Essential Air Service program, or E-A-S, cost $200-million last year and helped pay for airport service in about 150 communities throughout the country.
Alaska’s Congressional delegation has been fighting McCain because $12.5-million of that went to 44 Alaskan communities.
McCain spoke on the Senate floor Tuesday and marveled at the reaction, especially of the Alaskan senators:
I had no idea it would approach the end of western civilization as we know it. If we eliminated this obviously outdated and unnecessary 200 million dollars of the taxpayers’ money.
Senator Lisa Murkowski made her own comments on the Senate floor this week, and said she couldn’t weigh-in on what losing E-A-S would do to Lower 48 states like McCain’s, but that it could destabilize Alaskan communities.
But I can say without any reservation that this amendment would create an economic and a transportation disaster for Alaska, including the loss of jobs, livelihoods, and would potentially impact health and medical situations.
Both Senator Murkowski and Democratic Senator Mark Begich showed their colleagues posters of Alaska and its vast size and limited road system. Begich in his floor speech warned losing E-A-S would put Alaskans out of work and isolate already distant villages.
The program has been a vital link for rural America. There are very real consequences to eliminating this program for my constituents, especially in the 44 communities served by the EAS program. 82 percent of Alaska communities are not on the road system and rely on aviation as a primary means of transportation. For goods, people, mail, it all has to come by aircraft.
McCain, however, says if Alaska feels that strongly, it should pay for the program itself. He pointed to a recent editorial by former Alaskan state legislator Andrew Halcro.
Among other things I didn’t know about, while the nation faces a $14-Trillion fiscal hole and Congress is looking to tighten its belt, its inevitable that Alaska’s going to feel some pain. But the interesting thing is the State of Alaska had $12-Billion in reserves and another $40-billion banked away in permanent fund. Wow. I don’t know of another state in the union that’s that well off.
McCain criticized members of Congress who would vote down his amendment, saying it’s time to tackle the ballooning federal debt.
And if we vote against my amendment, the majority votes against the Essential Air Service, the message to the American people as of November 2nd is we aren’t serious. We aren’t serious. Because if we can’t eliminate a program like this, how can we make the really tough decisions that are coming.
McCain floated his amendment as part of the F-A-A or Federal Aviation Administration re-authorization. Even though his attempt to kill the program stalled out, E-A-S isn’t necessarily safe. It will still be scrutinized as members of Congress look for ways to shave spending.
The President’s new proposed budget funds it at only slightly lower levels than last year…. Over in the House, Congressman Don Young successfully got a provision through committee Wednesday continuing E-A-S only in Alaska and Hawaii… and eliminating it in all other states.