SEWARD, AK — So the very conservative Alaska Legislature, too often prone to bashing government and the federal government in particular, did the right thing last week and overrode former Gov. Sarah Palin’s veto of some $28 million in federal stimulus money. This provoked the erstwhile governor to say on her Facebook page that she had vetoed the energy assistance part of the stimulus because it would "further tie Alaska to the federal government."
Nosirree, wouldn’t want that, even though the federal government has been very, very, very good for Alaska and Alaskans throughout 50 years as a state, and long before that, going back to the federal purchase of the Great Land in 1867.
Despite this fairly obvious reality, far too many Alaskans are infected with a libertarian self-righteousness and a contempt for government in general. The vastness of the place feeds an illusion of individuality and self-reliant independence, but no state is a bigger per capita net beneficiary of federal spending, and this despite the state’s preponderance of revenue from royalties on oil extraction. Per-capita federal spending in Alaska amounted to more than $12,200 per person in fiscal 2003.
This government action has mostly been for good.
The government built the Alaskan Highway and the Alaska Railroad (taking over the latter from a failing private effort a century ago), without which habitation and economic development would have been impossible. The state government now runs the railroad at public expense and it’s a pretty impressive operation. For decades, the state's lifeblood has come from federal investment in defense and military installations and natural resource stewardship, plus construction of all manner of infrastructure from airports to harbors to sewer service.
Growing up in Anchorage in the 1950s and 1960s, I remember having to fill out a "federal impact statement" every September. Since statehood (I remember the bonfire in Anchorage when Congress approved it), this largesse has flowed to the state far out of proportion to its population.
And the pipeline is still open. Remember the infamous Bridge to Nowhere, which became the emblem for earmark abuse, was destined for Ketchikan, Alaska.
Alaska might actually benefit from a less dictatorial federal bureaucracy and from placing a little more of its land and resources in private hands. But its long-term economic health also depends primarily on the appeal of its magnificent public wilderness to tourists from around the world.
The captains of industry do not have a sterling record of preserving and investing in that resource. A fascinating account by Alfred O. Quinn, "Iron Rails to Alaskan Copper," documents how the Guggenheim interests extracted $200 million worth of copper from Alaska between 1912 and 1938, and then deserted the state when profits declined. Native tribes and communities in Prince William Sound are still waiting for delivery on the promise to make them "whole" after the Exxon Valdez spill 20 years ago.
The federal government doesn’t work that way, thankfully. It’s here for good and does good for the most part.
As a proud former Alaskan, I’m also proud of my federal government’s responsible and far-sighted tending of this great land and its people, no matter how obtuse some of them are about the good their government does.
— Dane Smith