Last week our Washington, D.C. delegation followed Gov. Sean Parnell’s lead by seeking to beef up the U.S. military presence in Alaska. They formally asked the Air Force to relocate 24 F-16 aircraft from a base in Germany to Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks. While the proposal is presented as cost efficiency measure, it’s also about jobs in Alaska. And with sequestration a new economic reality, we can be assured that other governors will be looking to military bases overseas for opportunities to offset defense spending losses in their states.
Governor Parnell was relatively quiet during federal budget negotiations over sequestration. He didn’t jump into the ring like he did in 2011 when he endorsed Congressman Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget proposal and signed the Cut, Cap, and Balance Pledge. That’s probably because he knows Alaskans rely more heavily on federal spending than any other state, more than 40 percent of which comes from the Pentagon. And 56 percent of that is salary and wages for active duty military.
Parnell’s request followed months of opposition to an Air Force plan that would move 24 F-16s of the 18th Aggressor Squadron from Eielson to the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage. The salaries of 600 airmen would have been taken out of the Fairbanks economy. As is always the case, members of Congress resist such impacts to constituent communities. Parnell’s proposal would have opposite effect. It would bring in millions of new dollars.
Looking at the military this way is like calling it a jobs program. And to a large degree that’s what it’s been since World War II. The salaries and wages paid to the military and Department of Defense civilians spread like wildfire into local economies, effectively creating more business opportunities and jobs.
U.S. military spending in Alaska was one of the primary anchors to the state economy that helped soften the blow of 2008 housing crisis and recession that followed. But the fact is the Pentagon budget more than doubled since the 2001 terrorist attacks. And Alaska’s economy was artificially stimulated by its share of that growth.
Of course, the recession hit just as President Obama moved into the White House. Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. They passed a huge stimulus bill and Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act. Those resulted in a significant backlash against government spending and changed the balance of power in the U.S. House of Representatives. Energized by newly elected Tea Party types in 2011, the GOP controlled House forced the President into cost-cutting concessions in order to increase the federal debt ceiling.
Sequestration was part of that package. It not only put the scared cow of military spending on the chopping block, discretionary defense programs (including weapons purchases, base operations, construction, training, etc.) will be half of all budget cuts. Supporting our troops will take on new meaning though because active military member salaries are exempt.
Meanwhile, much of the federal civilian workforce may face unpaid furloughs of up to 20 days per year. It will have the effect of a salary cut that, in Alaska, could take more than $50 million out of local economies. The ripple effect on businesses will be significant. But it will be far less in Anchorage and Fairbanks, where about 80 percent of all federal wages and salaries are earned by active duty military personnel.
Sequestration may not continue all the way to 2021 as prescribed. It may not even last a full year. But if it is a sign of things to come, then one way for states to offset the loss of federal employee income is to increase their take of the armed forces pie. And as that shrinks, the best place for members of Congress and Governors to look is to the American military bases across the oceans.
This is a good thing because it’s not only way past time to reduce military spending; we can’t afford to have the salaries of 125,000 service men and women bolstering economies in Europe and Asia. Nor should America be an empire policing the world. So let’s hope our Governor’s modest proposal to move two dozen F-16s from Germany to Fairbanks starts a nationwide call to bring our troops home.
• Moniak is a Juneau resident and is a civilian employee of the U.S. Coast Guard.