Juneau's Big Men should be scrutinized

COMMENTMay 18, 2012 

Like Viking raiders returning from Lindisfarne, Alaska legislators are plying the fjords north from Juneau, bringing to their constituencies the spoils of the battle for infrastructure also known as the Alaska state capital budget. As their legislative aides man the longboat's oars, Ragnar the Pugnacious and other legislators hoist their bounty as they approach their legislative districts.

A Little League ball field is hoisted up the mast and the constituents on shore raise their mead-horns and shout in honor of the returning legislator-warrior.

Then a senior center goes up the mast and again the mead-horns are raised in salute.

With every capital budget item that survives the governor's veto, the frenzy reaches a higher level. That night in the mead hall, the people become intoxicated with capital spending ... Well, it's a little more sedate than that. In actuality, legislators return to tell mild-mannered civic organizations about what they funded and are slapped on the back and toasted with bad coffee. Local newspapers interview the returning heroes and the list of projects is tallied in bullet points and the dollars are added up. "We did pretty good in Juneau this year," the legislator is quoted as saying.

There are many worthy projects that are funded. But for a state that purports to be fiscally conservative, there is a lot of waste. Every constituency in Alaska has superfluous funding. In my area, two perfectly good natural-turf high school football fields are being resurfaced with AstroTurf or the modern equivalent. Never mind that only about five games a year are played on a field or that young knees tend to shatter when they hit a frozen, rock-hard synthetic-turf field.

The supplicants should be reminded we're not in Texas anymore.

It has come to be that the measure of a legislator's worth is determined by the capital projects he or she gets funded. Alaska legislators decry government spending at election time, but try to find a fiscal conservative at budget time. In the past session, the seeming lone wolf condemning extravagant spending was Rep. Mike Doogan.

This is not a new thing. Since the first stratified societies, the ambitious have been doling out the chips and then calling them back in as a way to exercise clout. A classic example is the Melanesian "Big Man" as defined by anthropologist Marshall Sahlins. The Big Man "provides his followers with protection and economic assistance, in return receiving support which he uses to increase his status."

Because of the funding process, Alaska legislators function as "Big Men."

The Alaska Big Man system needs more scrutiny. We need to acknowledge there are two parallel systems that fund capital projects (three if you count federal pass-through dollars).

The constitutional system is based on budget requests by state agencies. Requests travel up the system to higher and higher levels until they reach the commissioners and eventually are, or are not, included in the governor's budget. Legislators can, and do, amend that budget.

The Big Man system bypasses state agencies and funds non-state programs such as the afore-mentioned Little Leagues, senior activities, high school football fields and myriad other projects that effectively channel state dollars to private, local government or nonprofit sectors.

The Big Man legislators play a powerful role in this process because they are the gatekeepers to whom citizens come hat in hand. At the beginning of each session, each is given a pot of money to spend, and they do.

Whereas the state funding system is, at least in theory, transparent, non-government requests via the Big Man system are not. A late-evening phone call, a fishing trip and, presto, a request can easily result in significant government spending. Some of the projects contribute to the general welfare; some don't.

Alaska could use a little more accountability and restraint in how it funds its Big Man capital projects. It is the duty of the state to fund state agencies. It is not the duty of the state to funnel state dollars to nonprofits or other agencies, although it may be in our collective best interest to do so. For starters, we can identify which capital projects are the results of a state agency budgetary process and which are funded through the Big Man process. The latter should not be a based on who knows whom, but how they contribute to a culture of the North. And that is the public's decision.

Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College.

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