Alaskans tend to live with their contradictions in these recessionary times. No place benefits more from federal largess than this state, where the Republican governor decries "intrusive" Obama administration policies, officials sue to overturn the health-care law and GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski voted against the stimulus bill.
PALMER, Alaska — Backed by a blue row of saw-toothed mountain peaks, Republican state Rep. Carl Gatto finds himself on a fine roll.
Roll it back, he says; roll back this socialistic experiment in federal hegemony. Give us control of our land, let us drill and mine, and please don’t let a few beluga whales get in the way of a perfectly good bridge.
“I’ve introduced legislation to roll back the federal government,” he said. “They don’t have solutions; they just have taxes.”
And what of the federal stimulus, from which Alaska receives the most money per capita in the nation? Would he reject it?
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Gatto, 72, smiled and shook his head: “I’ll give the federal government credit: They sure give us a ton of money. For every $1 we give them in taxes for highways, they give us back $5.76.”
He pointed to a newly graded, federally financed highway, stretching toward distant fir trees. “Man, beautiful, right?”
Alaskans tend to live with their contradictions in these recessionary times. No place benefits more from federal largess than this state, where the Republican governor decries “intrusive” Obama administration policies, officials sue to overturn the health-care law and GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski voted against the stimulus bill.
While its unemployment rate sits at only 7.9 percent, 1.6 percentage points below the national rate, Alaska has received $3,145 per capita in stimulus dollars as of May, the most in the nation, according to data compiled by ProPublica, an investigative website. Nevada, by contrast, has a jobless rate north of 14 percent and has received $1,034 per capita in recovery aid. Florida’s unemployment rate is 11.4 percent, and the state has obtained $914 per capita.
Washington state, with an unemployment rate of 8.9 percent, ranks 10th in per-capita aid, at $1,443.
Alaska has pension and budget woes. More perilously, oil production is slumping. But its problems are not mortal; the ax fell on new police headquarters and replacement Zamboni blades rather than on teachers and libraries last year. And the state has avoided the unemployment devastation visited on the Lower 48 in part because federal dollars support one-third of Alaska jobs, according to a study at the University of Alaska, Anchorage (UAA).
Not that this has assuaged the anti-government rancor. Rep. Don Young, a Republican, denounced the stimulus as appalling, done under cover of night and without full disclosure. He also promised that “if there are earmarks, we will have our fingerprints on them.”
(Curiously, that pattern also plays out in Louisiana, Wyoming and the Dakotas, states relatively low in unemployment but high in per-capita stimulus, federal aid and growling, anti-government animus.)
Here is the cognitive dissonance. More and more Alaskans, particularly of the Republican stripe, identify the federal government and pork-barrel spending as the enemy, although Alaska was built by both.
Alaska’s appetite for federal dollars always has been voracious and even today is not confined to the stimulus. A study by professor Scott Goldsmith of UAA’s Institute of Social and Economic Research noted an “extraordinary increase” in federal spending drove the state’s pile-driver growth of the past 15 years.
Alaska’s share of federal spending in 1996 exceeded the national average by 38 percent. Thanks to the pork-barrel politics of the late Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, chief of the Senate Appropriations Committee for several years, and to the military, which keeps expanding its installations in the state, Alaska’s share now is 71 percent more than average.
Some of this owes to the expense of serving Alaska’s rural reaches and the fact that the federal government owns two-thirds of the state. But much is bred in the bone. The federal government expended great amounts of money carving this young state out of the northern wilderness, and Alaska officials learn to manipulate federal budget levers at a tender age.
Still, many in the state see strings attached. Lynn Gattis, a state Republican Party official from Wasilla, is a sourdough Alaskan, meaning she was born in the state. She knows the federal government paid for Anchorage’s port, the highway that leads to Wasilla and a portion of the sewers that allowed Target and Sports Authority to take root.
But she sees a government that delays oil exploration, as President Obama did recently; that regulates timber and salmon harvests and hydropower; and that, in her view, cares more about polar bears than about Alaskans. (The beluga whales of Cook Inlet, a vast gray expanse that stretches out from Anchorage, are listed as endangered. Some Alaskans argue this could stall construction of a multimillion-dollar bridge, which as it happens would be funded by the federal government.)
“It just feels like the federal government intrudes everywhere,” Gattis said. “Enough Ivy League lawyers — let’s get people who can dig a mine and run a business.”
This sentiment baffles Tony Knowles, a long drink of a man who worked on North Slope oil rigs before becoming governor in 1994 as a Democrat. He understands the frustration that comes with bumping into federal officials at each turn. But the trade-off is not so terrible, he notes, such as having the feds pay to put broadband in villages.
“Nobody likes to have all their eggs in one basket, and so you do feel vulnerable,” Knowles said. “But Ted Stevens, who was a Republican and beloved, was never shy about bringing money in.”
Some Alaskans have made a founding narrative of their sense of grievance. “Before statehood, when a distant federal bureaucracy managed our resources, Alaskans experienced devastating economic effects,” Republican Gov. Sean Parnell says on his website. Alaska became a state in 1959.
The historical record is a bit more complicated. Federal construction dollars, fishing and timber sustained Alaska until the discovery of oil in the 1960s.
Unemployment rose as the Great Recession blew through, although the state still levies no sales or individual income taxes and the state makes so much from oil companies that it sends every man, woman and child a dividend check each fall. The check this year will be about $1,300.
Still, uneasiness is palpable in Alaska, and perhaps it accounts for the political anger in the air. Oil production, the state’s lifeblood, is winding down. Federal dollars of the nonstimulus variety have slowed, too.
All of which tends to reinforce that Alaska remains much as it was 50 years ago, dependent on drilling, mining and federal aid.
“Californians wait for a new entrepreneurial wave to lift them,” said Goldsmith, the UAA professor. “For us, the traditional extraction economy still rules.”
That is why, he added, “historically, we take whatever largess comes our way. A federal dollar is a good dollar.”
Seattle Times staff
contributed to this report.