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Profile: Update from Senator Lisa Murkowski on COVID-19, State of the State Economy, and Rural Alaska

The end of April marked the release of more federal funds for Alaskans and small businesses directly affected by COVID-19. Last week, Senator Lisa Murkowski spoke with KNOM Radio about stimulus money and other things related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Hear the full conversation between KNOM’s Davis Hovey and Senator Murkowski below:

Murkowski: I’m Lisa Murkowski, United States Senator for the state of Alaska.

KNOM: Let’s start out with the COVID-19 updates. In terms of things happening with federal funds and the second round of funding for small businesses, what updates can you share?

Murkowski: Well I think it was important to make sure that we replenished the funds that are available for small businesses. They have been immediately and directly impacted. So many of our restaurants, those that are part of any kind of a tourism sector, so many Alaskans have been impacted by the coronavirus and the economic hit that has followed….

So, we saw a big run on the initial funds. There were $349 billion initially made available; (which) ran out in less than 14 days. This past week [end of April] Congress moved through and the President signed an additional $310 Billion to support loans and grants through the Paycheck Protection Program. Also plus(ed) up the Economic Injury Loan Program (EIDL) so there is now additional funding in that for grants to individuals. These we know have been significant for our businesses to take advantage of them.

With the first round of funding, it did not allow for the seasonal workers… to ensure that those seasonal businesses would be able to appropriately account for their payroll. We have been able to fix that. I think that’s important for people to take into context, because you may have looked at the PPP and thought this is not going to be a program that is helpful because of the nature of your business. That has been addressed and again I think that is going to make a difference for a lot of our seasonal businesses.

I will tell you that the run on the funds, if you will, has again been over the top. When people started to apply first thing on Monday, banks were backed up and lenders were very frustrated because of a slowdown in the system, but what it was, was just a huge plug of loan applications that were being processed. So, we had conversations with the Small Business Administration (SBA) to ensure that our small lenders, our small borrowers are getting the resources, getting the funding. I think it was a pretty frustrating couple of days at the first of the week, but we are hearing better news as of Wednesday [April 29th] in terms of processing of that.

KNOM: Sort of off of that, I know in the first round we heard concerns, you and Senator Sullivan received concerns, that only one Alaskan business received a loan from that EIDL program you mentioned earlier. Have things been mitigated in the second round (of funding) to help more Alaskan businesses get some of those funds?

Murkowski: Yes. The numbers that we’re starting to see now are encouraging. In the first round with the PPP there was some 4800 loans that went to Alaskans, a little less than a billion dollars in support there. With the EIDL program, at the end of the first installment, they were able to approve eight EIDL loans. In fairness, eight isn’t much better than one. So, we’re watching very carefully. I think it’s important to note that the EIDL application didn’t come back online until… it was either going to be last night [Tuesday, April 28th] or this morning [Wednesday, April 29th]. The reason for the delay in the startup on that was that they had to reprogram the program because they had done an expansion to allow for agriculture to be eligible for those (loans).

So, we don’t have any new news on EIDL in terms of whether we’ve seen more Alaska applications approved. But I was on a call late last night with the SBA administrator, walking her through the concerns we had heard directly from lenders in the first couple days. There was pure admission that they thought they had put a system in place to help facilitate a large processing and ultimately it disadvantaged smaller lenders who were trying to process things one at a time, but they corrected that by mid-afternoon. So again, we’re monitoring this very, very carefully.

KNOM: That’s good news and a step in the right direction. You mentioned earlier a little bit about seasonal workers and businesses, are you at all concerned, do you have concerns related to the Alaskan economy coming up this summer? I know you know very well our commercial fishing industry, our mining, our tourism industry are big during the summer.

Murkowski: Yes! I wake up concerned every morning and I go to bed concerned every evening about the state of Alaska’s economy and how we are faring right now. I just got off a call with the president of the Federal Reserve Bank, talking about the economic impact to a state like Alaska which is so seasonal in our economic opportunities and also so resource dependent.

When you think about the legs of our economic stool, it’s tourism, it’s fisheries, it’s our oil and gas sector, and it’s the revenues that we receive from the oil that is invested in the market. So, your markets are down, obviously supply and demand in the oil sector is turned upside down and the layoffs we have seen up there are pretty extraordinary. Our tourism is just devastated this year and we’re still working to see if we can successfully prosecute a fishery, whether in Cordova in a couple weeks or in Bristol Bay in a month or so. Because if you can’t ensure that you’re going to have a level of safety and be able to meet the protocols that are still in place, then it’s going to be tough.

And how we recover through this very, very, very, devastating blow to the economy is going to be a challenge for us. I remain optimistic, I mean I worry a lot, but I also remain optimistic because we are a state with a history of highs and lows, booms and busts. You think about Nome, when my mother was born there about 87 years ago, that was an economy that was carrying the state. And Nome’s economy looks a little different now than it did in the 1930s. We have had a boom and bust cycle for a long period of time. It develops a resiliency, I think it develops a level of creativity and thinking outside the box.

We are being challenged right now. I do think as challenging as this time is, we will get through it and we will be more resilient as a consequence of it.

KNOM: I’d like to take a moment to go to a question from one of our listeners, this is from Jack Omelak. I’m paraphrasing here as best I can, but he wants to know if you think we’ve opened a sort of Pandora’s Box from here on out when we continue, as a country, to respond to legitimate or illegitimate cries of wolf related to viruses, pandemics, and the fallout that comes with that?

Murkowski: I think when we have something like COVID-19 in front of us right now, we take it seriously. But we not only take this seriously, we recognize that we do have vulnerability to different viruses, different diseases. It wasn’t too many years back when all eyes were focused on the fight in Africa with regards to Ebola. It wasn’t too many years back when we were all focused on SARS. So, I think what we need to ensure, and perhaps what this battle with COVID will leave us with, is a reminder that we don’t ever let our guard down when it comes to our focus on trying to understand the nature of disease, the epidemiology that comes.

We had established a pretty robust pandemic health fund and I’m not phrasing the name correctly, but it’s something that we put in place ten years ago. And we didn’t resource it to the places that we needed, so that our doctors, researchers, and those in the lab that do this work on a daily basis that help work to develop these vaccines; so that we really had all of the tools in the tool box or the sharpest tools available to us.

I think to a certain extent we’ve gotten kind of complacent because we have been able to respond readily to health incidents as they appear, but you don’t know what is going to come next and what it might look like. And the reason that this coronavirus has been such a challenge is because this is a novel coronavirus, it is new, we have never seen this, this is not the flu. And so, treating it as we have been, as a new threat, and something that we must now scramble to understand; I think should be a reminder that you don’t ever relax on this front, that these are fears that can threaten the most prosperous nation in the world. And that’s where we are right now.

KNOM: Talking a little bit about that idea of resiliency, the community Shaktoolik recently received an award from the Iditarod for their efforts during this year’s race to accommodate mushers and be committed to the race, while also, of course, being concerned over COVID-19. I’m sure you paid attention to this year’s Iditarod. But is there any message you’d like to share with them or the communities in our region in general?

Murkowski: I just want to offer my thanks and again acknowledge the resourcefulness that I think we see demonstrated in so many Alaskans. You might have very particular challenges in your community or within your family, but when you see a need you respond to it. I think there is a level of adaptability that comes with living in remote areas where you don’t’ have a lot of easy answers that are readily available to you in a book, so you go out and figure it out on your own. Whether it was how Shaktoolik responded… we saw examples up and down the trail throughout the Iditarod. And remember that was very early on in terms of the impact and the response (to COVID) in the state of Alaska. So, you had individuals coming together and saying ‘we haven’t seen this threat out here, but we know that we need to be prepared. We spend so much of what we do being prepared, being prepared for the winter, being prepared by hunting and gathering for the next season.’

So many came together at a time when nobody asked, and again the threat was still very remote in many ways, and yet a recognition that our best defense in remote areas of Alaska, is to be prepared. You demonstrated it in a manner that was admirable, and as an Alaskan it gives me a smile on my face just thinking about how selflessly and almost how easily it was demonstrated. So, we just greatly appreciate the leadership that was shown.

KNOM: Thank you Senator, my last question for you. Based on the water and sewer needs in our region which you know all too well, are there going to be any opportunities in federal funding from the CARES Act or some type of legislation related to COVID-19 response that could help some of our communities who lack (access to) water and sewer?

Murkowski: In the CARES Act legislation there is nothing specific that would help build out related water and sewer infrastructure. But I will tell you that as we are in discussions about the next phases, we are looking to infrastructure initiatives. And clearly when you think about a response to the virus, what’s the first lesson you’re told? ‘Wash your hands!’ Well if you’re in a community where it is a challenge to do so because you’re hauling your water, it’s limited, you are compromised in so many different ways.

This has long been an issue for the (Alaska) delegation, but I think it has become even more accentuated in recent weeks and months here as we are discussing the COVID-19 response. There are bills in the Senate right now. Senator (Dan) Sullivan is on the EPW committee, which has oversight of some of these infrastructure related projects and he’s been talking about what their committee has been doing. I am chairman of the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, and on that subcommittee we have oversight of Village Safe Water funds and EPA water accounts. So, as we are developing our appropriations bill, we will be looking specifically to these types of initiatives.

So, while there is nothing in CARES right now, I think this is again a reminder to us that when we’re talking about health and healthcare, it’s very difficult to ask people to attend to the most basic of principles if they don’t have water. And that is an effort that I think we’ll just double down on.

KNOM: We look forward to seeing, hearing more updates from you in the future Senator. Is there anything else you’d like to mention or highlight at this time before we wrap up?

Murkowski: I know it’s spring and everyone is preparing or going out for their spring hunt for the birds and the sea mammals, so be safe out there whether you are out on the river, the lakes, or the sea itself. Be careful as you do what you do and know that we are thinking of you and asking you to be well and stay well. And I want to say thank you, thank you to the many in the region who are making a difference. It is greatly appreciated!

Image at top: Senator Murkowski speaking during her address to the Alaska State Legislature in February of 2020. Photo from Senator Lisa Murkowski’s Office via public domain/social media.

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