Editor's note: This story was originally published October 7, 2007
When the smoke cleared after Gov. Sarah Palin's big cuts to the capital budget in June, one survivor that stood out was a $630,000 appropriation to the Wasilla Sports Complex.
Palin cut funds for 40 sports-related projects around Alaska, saying sports was not an essential government service. Gone was money for baseball and soccer fields, turf improvements for Dimond and Service high schools, roof repairs to the Sullivan Arena and planning for a long-sought University of Alaska Anchorage sports arena.
So why was there still money for a kitchen for the Wasilla Sports Complex -- not to mention funds for several other Mat-Su sports projects, including new lights at the Houston High School field and new bleachers at Palmer High?
Critics were quick to recall the former Wasilla mayor's campaign pledge to the Wasilla Chamber of Commerce last year that she would be "biased toward the Valley" as governor.
The comment was brushed off at the time as a lighthearted defense of her hometown. But it was recalled again this summer when Palin overhauled the state's agricultural bureaucracy in an attempt to save the state-owned Matanuska Maid, the only market for a handful of Mat-Su area dairy farmers.
Coupled with Palin's decision to leave the Juneau governor's residence once the Legislature adjourned -- wags dubbed her lakeside Wasilla home "the summer palace" -- and enroll her kids in Valley schools this fall, the former Miss Wasilla's actions have some critics asking whether her down-home style includes a sentimental streak capable of clouding her judgment.
To be sure, the complaints -- heard on talk radio and in letters columns -- have amounted more to a light drizzle than a deluge.
"I don't think there's any way you can get around the cronyism and favoritism," says Andrew Halcro, a former independent candidate for governor who has been harsher than most. "It begs the question about other issues down the road."
In an interview Friday, Palin denied showing any bias toward the Mat-Su area.
When her cuts to the capital budget were complete, she said, Mat-Su got 8.5 percent of the spending, while Anchorage got 22.8 percent. Those are proper proportions, she said. She added that the cuts -- more than $230 million in all -- were based on statewide criteria, not election districts.
"If the criticism is that I cheer for my hometown team too often, I'm going to be cheering for my kids' teams," Palin said Friday. "The numbers speak for themselves in the budget. People can take me at my word or not, that I am not biased towards or against any region in Alaska."
As to the specific Mat-Su sports projects, Palin said local legislators and municipal governments had made them high-priority items. The sports items cut elsewhere did not rank so high on local lists, she said.
The Wasilla arena, in particular, was primarily a safety issue, she said, because the new kitchen would make the facility usable as an emergency shelter. The old Palmer bleachers were also a safety concern, she added.
Local officials defended the $630,000 for Wasilla's big hockey and indoor-turf arena. While schools often serve as emergency shelters in other parts of the state, said arena manager Bruce Urban, where would people go if a major earthquake or forest fire occurred in Wasilla while schools were in session?
But city officials conceded the new kitchen will also allow them to attract conventions and other business to help reduce operating subsidies to the sports arena.
That was, in fact, part of the plan when voters first approved the complex in 2002, after a sales-tax-increase campaign that was pushed vigorously by Wasilla's mayor at the time, Sarah Palin.
Despite the ongoing subsidies, the $15 million sports arena has been popular in the area and a feather in the cap locally for Palin, who broke with her usual anti-tax stance to get the facility approved.
But the project comes with an embarrassing legal legacy, for which the bill is only now coming due. Efforts to obtain the land where the complex was eventually built began under Palin, who served as chief administrator under Wasilla's form of government. Those efforts resulted in a long losing court battle and a controversial decision to condemn the land for recreational purposes.
Two months ago, Wasilla was told it would have to pay more than $1.7 million, including interest and legal fees, to clear the title. That compares to $146,000 that the city thought it would spend when it set out under Palin to buy the land in 1998.
Meanwhile, the state has been helping Wasilla turn the sports arena into more of a "multi-use" facility. The latest capital budget item brings to $1.5 million the total state aid for expansion since the facility was finished. Palin defended the expense -- but said she wants to reduce such state spending next year and increase municipal aid, so that local governments decide such priorities for themselves.
"They make the decision on whether they're going to get Astroturf on their field or whether their museum is going to be expanded," she said "I don't think it should be the state administration's prerogative to be picking and choosing which projects get funded."
Agriculture issues in Palin's first year as governor have focused on the Mat-Su region. She said it was natural to look to the state's main agricultural area for expertise.
When a state panel announced plans to shut down money-losing Matanuska Maid, Palin responded to an outcry from Valley dairy farmers and fired the state Board of Agriculture and Conservation, which oversees the panel. The seven new members she appointed were all from the Mat-Su area. That group has now been charged with finding an exit strategy for the state.
In August, Palin appointed another Mat-Su resident, Franci Havemeister, as the state director of agriculture. A former real estate agent, Havemeister did not have a professional background like some applicants for the post, but she was the daughter-in-law of Bob Havemeister, one of the four surviving Mat-Su dairy farmers. She had organized a pro-Matanuska Maid demonstration in June where protestors waved "Save the Cows" signs.
Palin said Havemeister was energetic, nonpolitical and sensitive to the need to revitalize agriculture. Several previous directors were Mat-Su farmers themselves, she said. Palin praised the unpaid and selfless work of her agricultural board, particularly chairwoman Kristan Cole, another Valley real estate agent. She said the board was working to find a way to get the state-owned dairy into private hands by the end of the year.
"They're doing all this for the right reasons. It's not doing favors for anybody in the Mat-Su Valley," Palin said.