Alaskans love their federal subsidies

February 22, 2011 

We Alaskans like to think of ourselves as independent folk making our way through a wilderness the Lower 48 cannot hope to understand. We don't let the reality of the fact that the majority of us live in decidedly urban areas with all the amenities we could want at hand interfere with this image. We are the citizens of the Last Frontier and we don't need the feds telling us what to do.

This message can sound odd in D.C. when, on the one hand, we proclaim ourselves independent pioneers taming the last great wilderness and, on the other hand, scream and squeal like stuck pigs if anyone dares to threaten even one of our federal subsidies.

Alaskans may soon find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to put their money where their mouth is. The current tea party revolution is supposed to signal a change of direction for America. It purports to represent a desire to have the feds do less and spend less.

Most Alaskans seem to agree with this concept unless, of course, that decreased spending comes from the ocean of federal money washing over Alaska each year. Federal subsidies are apparently only pork when they go to someone else.

So federal money spent in every other state is pork barrel spending -- except, perhaps, for Hawaii, since we have a special bond with that state based on its warm beaches in February. Other than that, though, we firmly believe that the money spent in Alaska is warranted because it builds our infrastructure and allows us to catch up with the Lower 48 in developing our state.

The funny thing is that just about every state can, and does, make what they consider an equally valid argument for their pork. The theme of all this spending seems to be that your direct appropriation is a waste of federal money. My direct appropriation is a wise use of it.

Anyone who lived in this state in the dark days before Uncle Ted earned the muscle to send crates of money to us knows we were a pretty poor state financially even as we remained one of the richest in resources. So long as Uncle Ted was there and we weren't fighting wars all over the Middle East that drained federal reserves, we were happy campers. We could proclaim our independent spirit while accepting millions upon millions of dollars for programs like the Denali Commission and mail bypass and Essential Air Service.

Anyone who read the annual report sent out by the Denali Commission would find it hard to argue with the essential infrastructures it provides to rural Alaska. And anyone who has tried to pay for an airline ticket from a remote village knows how much harder that would be without a federal subsidy.

But money is tight now and Congress is looking for big cuts. Earmarks like the Denali Commission are bound to come under fire. The question is, how will Alaskans respond to that fire? Will we insist that despite our much-trumpeted independent spirit, we still need all the pork that our delegation can shove our way? Will we refuse earmarks on the principle that the buck has to stop somewhere? Will we finally have to look at our Permanent Fund and wonder if this isn't that rainy day they told us about?

Wow. I could hear that scream resound across Alaska without the help of electronics as Alaskans clutched their Permanent Fund dividend and made it clear that the fund will be used for nothing else ever beyond that yearly check. But imagine, if you will, how hard it is for our congressional delegation to sell the need for continued subsidies in a state with a multibillion-dollar savings account that does little more each year than give Alaskans money for the holiday season.

If the tea partyers win this round and strip many of our much loved subsidies and earmarks out of the budget, Alaskans may finally have to face the choice of building their own critical infrastructure like clinics, fuel farms and roads, or doing without. Either way, it would seem that we are about to find out just how much fun it is to be as independent as we like to proclaim we are. It should make for a very interesting experience.


Elise Patkotak is an Alaska writer and author of "Parallel Logic," her memoir of 28 years in Barrow. Website, www.elisepatkotak.com.

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