In his insightful ADN column of Feb. 10, Larry Persily suggested legislators are going to have to choose this session between another large Permanent Fund dividend or increased, appropriate funding for public education. Alaskans need to pressure lawmakers to fund schooling first, he wrote, and see what may be left for dividends afterward.
Persily had earlier written about Alaska’s new outmigration. Young people don’t see opportunity here, so they’re heading out. For 10 years, outmigration has exceeded in-migration. We are shrinking.
There may be a silver lining here. From 1974 until a decade or so ago, many new arrivals to Alaska came for the money, first high-paying construction jobs, and then all the work related to the operations required for oil production, and for exploration and development.
These folks brought a new mentality to Alaska. Before big oil, Alaska was a politically blue state. The last territorial governor, Ernest Gruening, was a Democrat. He fought assiduously for statehood The last territorial delegate to Congress, E.L. “Bob” Bartlett, who also fought tirelessly for statehood, also was a Democrat. There was a general national assumption at the time, correct or not, that Alaska was liberal and Democrat because the type of people who went to live there were a more adventuresome, risk-taking lot, less interested in lifelong stability, more willing to uproot their circumstances, i.e., less conservative.
In 1958, the year Alaska statehood passed in Congress, national political leaders understood that if admitted, Alaska’s congressional delegation, especially its two U.S. senators, would likely be Democrats. That would upset a delicate balance in Congress between members who supported civil rights legislation, mostly from the East and West Coast states, and those who opposed it, mostly from the South, a balance that had stymied the movement of such bills. While there were other reasons, Alaska statehood was approved in Congress largely because it was paired, though in separate bills, with Hawaii statehood; Hawaii’s delegation was expected to be Republican.
Those expectations were correct, at least in the case of Alaska: Bartlett and Gruening were elected Alaska’s first U.S. senators in 1959, and Alaska’s lone member in the House of Representatives was Democrat Ralph Rivers. Moreover, Democrat William Egan was elected the state’s first governor, serving two successive terms then, and another later. The first state legislatures, mostly majority Democrat, passed founding legislation that put the state on a solid political footing, emphasizing citizens’ rights and government transparency. After a decade of statehood, the Legislature voted to guarantee a woman’s right to an abortion, a right later upheld by the Alaska Supreme Court. Alaska was over the first years of statehood largely a politically blue state. And while not thoroughly blue, it was still characterized by citizens dedicated to constructing an open society for the future where people were judged by what they did and how they conducted themselves, not by their political or other affiliations. They saw themselves as builders of something larger than themselves.
That changed with the arrival of big oil and its money. Certainly, Alaskans welcomed the money. The state had barely survived its first decade financially. The economic base was almost entirely federal spending. But the money altered some people’s focus, directing it inward. This was especially true for many of the new arrivals. Many were not interested in building a new society on the far fringe of American culture. Their interest in the money did not include a long-term future here; they did not intend to stay. And they did not imagine that their grandchildren would be living here. For them, Alaska was a short-term proposition, a sojourn with good money and good fishing, for a while. Then it was back home. They were not much interested in taxing themselves, nor in bonding for parks and schools.
If my historical view is correct, perhaps those remaining in Alaska today are again more committed to thinking long-term, as most of Alaska’s Native people have always been. If so, perhaps we’re reverting toward a larger population of people more willing once more to think of Alaska as a place where their grandchildren might live. And perhaps that might motivate them to pressure their legislators to invest today’s state money in education, to prepare today’s students for that future, meanwhile forgoing some of their dividend. Should that be the case, Larry Persily might just realize his dream.
Steve Haycox is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
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