Federal tax bill heads for conference committee

Murkowski, Young both named to participate in negotiations

A federal tax overhaul bill passed by the Senate in the wee hours of Dec. 2, one that would allow oil leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, was headed for a conference committee this week, to reconcile differences between the Senate and House versions.

Their goal is to have it ready for President Trump to sign before year’s end.

Committee members, including Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, must produce final terms of this sweeping tax overhaul legislation, into which Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, included a section to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain to drilling for oil.

“The hallmark of this bill is job creation – jobs that put food on the table and allows families the opportunity to put their children through college,” Murkowski said, in a statement released after the middle-of-the-night Senate action.

“The kind of jobs that allow Alaskans to build up their savings to cope with the unexpected and to retire with peace of mind. This bill provides a tremendous opportunity for small businesses which make up 99 percent of the businesses in Alaska, along this a huge win for our state,” Murkowski said.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, also issued a prepared statement, saying the bill “will go a long way to helping hard-working, middle class Alaskans, who are suffering due to a recession.”

“I will do everything in my power to ensure this important moment to unlock ANWR’s energy resources does not pass us by,” Young said.

“There is still a long way to go in our unified effort to unleash Alaska’s true energy potential, but I am committed to getting this across the finish line,” he said, in a statement announcing his selection to the conference committee. The longest serving House Republican, Young in 1973 served on the conference committee that negotiated final terms of the Trans Alaska Pipeline Act, which authorized the right-of-way and construction of the Trans Alaska Pipeline System, also known as TAPS.

Shortly after the Senate voted 51-49 to approve the bill, Murkowski held a conference call with journalists, where she acknowledged that she wished the Senate would have allowed for the full, written text to be distributed and reviewed before the vote.  Instead, all Senators had to work with were last minute drafts of the bill, complete with some legible and some illegible hand-written adjustments in the margins.

“I’m not going to make excuses for that,” Murkowski said. “but we have made no secret about the desire to open ANWR. Every single Congress there have been bills to do that. We have had hearings on it.”

Kara Moriarty, president and chief executive officer of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, praised inclusion of language to open ANWR in the bill, saying it “is welcome news for the 70 percent of Alaskans who have supported development in the area specifically set aside for oil and gas, the ‘1002 area’, for decades.

There is, however, opposition in the House from a dozen Republicans, led by Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash, who oppose allowing oil and natural gas drilling in ANWR. The House version of the BOP’s tax bill does not specifically call for drilling in ANWR.

“One of the most pristine areas left in America today, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is home to musk oxen, wolves, imperiled polar bears and nearly 200 species of migratory birds that migrate to six continents and all 50 states,” they said in a letter to Republican leaders. “Any development footprint in the refuge stands to disrupt this fragile, critically important landscape.”

Another Murkowski amendment to the tax bill would permit Alaska Native corporations to deduct from their taxable income the amount of any contribution of cash or assets that the Native corporation makes to a settlement trust and to assign certain payments described in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act to a settlement trust without having to recognize any associated income, encouraging Native corporations to make those contributions, she said.

Also included in the Senate version of the tax bill is an amendment by Sullivan to eliminate a tax hike on cruise ships. The online publication Seatrade Cruise News said that tax hike had been projected to cost cruise operators upwards of $70 million annually.

The cruise industry had lobbied against the tax, contending that it could impact jobs at ports in 14 states, including Alaska. The online publican American Shipper meanwhile reported that the American Association of Port Authorities is concern over House and Senate versions of the tax bill, citing sections which AAPA said undermines U.S. seaports by elimination of several bonds and tax credits.

Democrats in Congress have been critical of the legislation overall, saying that it favors the richest Americans at the expense of the middle class. While the legislation would reduce individual tax rates for middle-income Americans, it would also make permanent a 20 percent corporate tax rate.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., referring to handwritten changes in the margins of the bill the Senate was given to vote on, asked in a floor speech before the vote “is this really how the Republicans are going to rewrite the tax code? Scrawled like something on the back of a napkin? Behind closed doors?

“With the help of K Street lobbyists?  IF that’s not a recipe for swindling the middle class and loosening loopholes for the wealthy, I don’t know what is.”