Members of our congressional delegation used to speak with pride about bringing federal pork to Alaska. Not anymore. At least for the time being, it’s about how federal matching funds might save us from our own governor.
That’s how I interpreted remarks Sen. Lisa Murkowski made after a luncheon speech in Anchorage last week. “I think it is fair to say that not all cuts of state dollars are equal,” she said, “because of what they may be able to leverage for other federal resources.” In particular, she mentioned funding for the University of Alaska, Medicaid, transportation and early childhood education.
She’s right that this isn’t a good time to try weaning ourselves from Uncle Sam’s largesse. But by taking that position on the state budget battle, she also subtly alluded to the cognitive dissonance in the general Alaskan attitude about the federal government. It may be a debt strapped bureaucracy that spends money foolishly. But needing it to survive economically undercuts our claim to be rugged, independent citizens of the last frontier.
Take the Essential Air Service program run by the Federal Aviation Administration. It was created to ensure air service to rural communities wouldn’t end when the airline industry was deregulated in 1978.
Except in Alaska, EAS doesn’t really serve that purpose anymore. Which is why during the 2015 debate to reauthorize it, Eli Lehrer, a director for the conservative Heartland Institute, called it “the single most wasteful program in the government.”
At $300 million, it’s a pretty small piece of the federal pie. According to a December 2018 Congressional Research Service report, 63 of the 174 communities the program serves are in Alaska. And the $23 million we get translates to a per capita share that’s 20 times more the average of the rest of the states.
So when President Donald Trump proposed to eliminate EAS in his 2017 budget, Murkowski, Sen. Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young made sure it didn’t happen. Our delegation fought off its extinction in 2015 and 2006, too. Every time they’ve correctly argued Alaska is different. Unlike locations in the Lower 48, some of which are within a two-hour drive to a larger airport, almost all of the Alaska communities that get the subsidy are off the road system.
Lehrer understands that. But he still makes a good case it’s a local program that, if it’s really an essential need, ought to be funded at the state level. And looking at our multibillion-dollar budgets prior to 2015, he was right to say Alaska can afford it.
That was then. It’s not that we can’t raise the revenue for a program like that now. But under Dunleavy, just about every state funded rural subsidy has been put on the chopping block. And a coincidentally perfect example is the five EAS communities facing a drastic loss of ferry service this winter.
Dunleavy proposed a $98 million cut to the Alaska Marine Highway budget. The legislature managed to restore more than half, but AMHS is still being forced to dramatically reduce its fall and winter sailing schedule. Starting in mid-January, Angoon, Gustavus, Kake and Tenakee won’t see a ferry in port for six weeks. And Cordova was thrown off the map. It won’t have any ferry service from October through April.
Think about the conflicting messages this sends to Congress. Our governor refuses to consider taxing Alaskans to subsidize transportation costs for those who choose to live off the road network. But we expect the feds to continue the EAS program despite the annual trillion-dollar deficit they’re running.
Or perhaps Dunleavy thinks he’s setting the example Congress should follow. They’re supposed to balance the federal budget by spending cuts alone.
That wouldn’t just end subsidies like the EAS. Federal grants would dry up. Small Alaskan businesses would lose most their $4 billion worth of federal contracts. Military bases in Anchorage and Fairbanks would see drastic personnel and spending reductions. Coast Guard search and rescue missions would be impaired. And layoffs in every other federal agency would put the finishing touches of a full-blown depression.
That wasn’t part of Murkowski’s “be careful what you ask for” warning to the Legislature though. All she’s trying to do is minimize the economic fallout from the Dunleavy recession heading our way.