Earlier this month, the Trump Administration released its 2019 budget proposal. The White House’s budget proposal is just that — a proposal to Congress on what the Administration believes the annual federal budget should look like. But it outlines the president’s funding priorities (and non-priorities) and offers valuable insights into how the White House views Alaska and the U.S. Arctic in the overall federal budgetary picture.
In its proposed funding for the Department of the Interior, the White House’s first priority is “Strengthen America’s Energy Security.” Under this priority, the 2019 proposal calls for increased funding for programs that support the “safe and responsible development of energy on public lands and offshore waters.” Among these programs, the budget proposal specifically calls for taking steps to initiate oil and gas leasing in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
On military and defense spending in Alaska, the White House’s budget proposal starts and ends with missile defense. With an eye squarely on the North Korean ballistic missile threat, the Trump proposal includes funding for 20 new Ground-Based Interceptors (GBIs), bringing the total number of GBIs to 64. Roughly half of the GBIs will be deployed at the newly-expanded Fort Greely missile silo fields, located near Fairbanks.
Funding to expand the Fort Greely site is also included in the 2019 proposal. The budget proposal also ensures that the plan to station two squadrons of advanced F-35 fighter aircraft at Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks by 2020 remains on track.
In light of a recent bipartisan decision in Congress to increase non-defense related spending caps, the Trump Administration submitted an addendum alongside its 2019 budget proposal for additional non-defense discretionary (NDD) spending. Among the $62.5 billion in additional NDD spending, the addendum specifically earmarks $720 million for the Coast Guard to begin construction on the first of three planned heavy polar icebreakers. While the Coast Guard requested so-called incremental funding to pay for the new icebreaker on a year-to-year basis during the procurement process, the $720 million proposal is notable in that it is expected to fund the full construction cost up front, increasing the Coast Guard’s likelihood of a smoother and quicker procurement process if Congress upholds the request.
While the White House’s initial 2019 proposal slashed budgets for science research at the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Energy, the aforementioned supplemental addendum largely restored funding for those organizations to roughly 2017 levels.
However, one science agency that is not spared cuts in the 2019 proposal is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The Trump Administration proposes cutting NOAA’s funding for $1 billion. That’s 20 percent less than previous year funding levels, and would include a 37 percent reduction in climate research. Among NOAA programs in the U.S. Arctic likely affected by the climate research cut, if affirmed by Congress, would be work related to sea ice modeling and ocean acidification. The budget proposal also seeks to eliminate climate change research at the Environmental Protection Agency.
Meanwhile, the White House’s 2019 proposal increases funding for U.S. research facilities in Antarctica.
Compared with last year’s White House proposal, among the biggest departure in the 2019 proposal is the President’s plan to spend $200 billion on infrastructure projects as incentives to generate $1.5 trillion in new investment by state and local governments as well as private partners. While the budget proposal does not cite specific infrastructure projects that will be receiving these funds, Alaska and the U.S. Arctic could stand to benefit.
Just a week before the White House submitted its budget proposal, the Army Corps of Engineers announced a new partnership with the city of Nome to once again explore the costs and benefits of building a deepwater port there. While similar projects have been explored in the past, the Trump’s renewed emphasis on domestic infrastructure spending could make the project more feasible this time around.
One area Alaska suffers from funding cuts in the 2019 proposed budget is in rural development programs. The White House proposal calls for eliminating the Denali Commision, an independent federal agency that dates back to 1989 and provides critical utilities, infrastructure, and economic support throughout rural Alaska. In calling for the elimination of the Denali program, the White House said that funding the Denali Commission “is difficult to justify given that the State of Alaska’s oil revenues allow it to pay an annual dividend ($1,884 in 2017) to each of its residents.”
Other programs like rural food subsidies and grants to Native American Tribes and Alaska Native Villages through the Native American Housing Block Grant (NAHBG) program are also slated to be reduced.
Not a done deal
It’s important to note that the Trump administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal is not the final federal budget. Instead, it’s the first step in a long process — a process in which Congress ultimately has the final say. If last year’s budget process is any template, then the Alaska Congressional delegation will have a significant influence on funding for Arctic programs. For example, the Trump Administration also tried cutting funding for the Denali Commission in its 2018 budget proposal. After the funding bill made its way through Congress, funding for the Commission actually increased 13 percent due to the efforts of the Alaska delegation.
So far, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has praised the President’s 2019 budget proposal, particularly its increase in funding for strategic military programs in Alaska and for the Coast Guard’s new heavy icebreaker procurement program. Nonetheless, whether the Trump Administration’s proposed funding (and cuts) for U.S. Arctic programs are carried out by Congress remains to be seen.