Murkowski ready to prioritize Arctic drilling over health care

Sen. Lisa Murkowski voiced her support for repealing the individual mandate.

(CREDIT: AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
(CREDIT: AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

In an op-ed published in a local Alaskan paper last week, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) announced that she supports repealing the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, saying that she “always supported the freedom to choose.”

Murkowski was a key vote in stopping repeal of the Affordable Care Act earlier this year, but there’s one crucial difference this time around: repealing the individual mandate is tied to the Republican’s tax bill, which also includes legislation opening up the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling.

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Murkowski has supported opening portions of the refuge to development for years, though her efforts have been met with little success. This most recent push — which would require only a simple majority to pass — might be Murkowski’s best chance to accomplish a long-held goal.

Environmental groups and some indigenous communities oppose the plan, arguing that opening up a sensitive part of the refuge to development could endanger both the environment and ecosystems in the region. The coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is home to over 200 species of migratory birds as well as the Porcupine caribou, which give birth and nurse their calves on the coastal plain before migrating south. Polar bears also den throughout the coastal plain.

A budget resolution adopted earlier this year directed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee — which Murkowski chairs — to find $1 billion in revenue to pay for tax reform. In response to that mandate, the committee advanced legislation opening up 800,000 acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development over the next ten years. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that royalties from any development — paid to both Alaska and the federal government — would result in $1.092 billion for the federal government over 10 years.

The reconciliation process allows for the drilling legislation to be inserted into the tax reform bill, meaning that it could pass without the support of Democratic support. But it would also force Murkowski to choose between opening the Arctic to development — something she has pushed for years — and repealing the individual mandate, a core component of the Affordable Care Act.

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Murkowski has been a crucial swing vote against Republican efforts to dismantle almost all of the Affordable Care Act, voting against repeal three times this year. Alaska has some of the highest health care costs in the country — due in large part to its size and small population — and Murkowski has been hesitant to vote for legislation that would raise costs even further.

But health care groups and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) warn that repealing the individual mandate could lead to healthy individuals dropping their health insurance, driving up premiums for those who still have coverage. According to the CBO, repealing the individual mandate would increase the number of uninsured 13 million by 2027, while increasing premiums by about 10 percent.

A spokesperson for Murkowski told Politico that her support of repealing the individual mandate does not necessarily mean that she supports the Republican’s tax reform plan. But Murkowski’s support of at least one part of the tax reform plan — opening the Arctic refuge to development — is no secret.

“Alaskans will do this the right way,” Murkowski said before the committee voted to advance the legislation. “We will protect the environment while providing substantial economic benefits all across America.”