JUNEAU — For Alaskans, the recent ban on federal earmarks brings to an end a decades-long era in which the young and still-developing state has routinely, and heavily, relied upon those funds for basics like roads or sewer systems.
State and community leaders knew this day was coming, given the escalating political rhetoric. But many weren’t quite ready for it and worry about what it will mean for them.
On Wednesday, there seemed to be reluctance among some Alaskans to accept that earmarks, seen by critics as the poster child for out-of-control spending in Washington, could be gone forever. Gov. Sean Parnell was meeting with key staff Wednesday to discuss the issue.
“I think we’re just going to have to sit and wait and see what they’re going to do with this,” said state Rep. Bill Thomas, a Republican co-chair of the House Finance Committee.
He said it’s going to be a hardship, that the state cannot replace the federal spending eyed for projects like harbors or rural clinics.
“Hopefully, we can weather through this, and we don’t need any big projects.”
U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, announced the ban Tuesday. For years, Inouye worked closely with Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens to ensure the needs of the nation’s two youngest states were looked out for; both men were unabashed supporters of earmarks as a way to meet their states’ needs.
Stevens, who died in August, is revered in his home state for having brought home billions of dollars in projects and aid during his 40 years in the Senate — a legacy Alaska’s current congressional delegation has sought to keep alive.
The delegation secured nearly $1 billion in earmarks — much of that, for military base improvements — in fiscal years 2009-10, according to a spokeswoman for Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska. Taxpayers for Common Sense ranked Alaska sixth in per capita spending for earmarks in 2010; it ranked Hawaii first.
Inouye made clear that he still supports earmarks but was giving in because President Barack Obama had pledged to veto bills including earmarks and the House refused to pass bills containing them.
He vowed to revisit the issue next year “when the consequences of this decision are fully understood by members of this body.”
But Steve Ellis, a vice president with Taxpayers for Common Sense, believes the era of the earmark — as we’ve known it — is over. “These agencies are going to learn to live under a new regime. And I don’t see any way we’re going to go back to the way earmarks were” allocated, he said.
The ban won’t end federal spending in the states. Estimates put earmarks at less than 1 percent of the total federal budget, and Alaska, for example, gets far more from formula-based programs for things like transportation than it does from earmarks.
But it will put added pressure on other funding sources, like competitive grants. And it could leave some communities in a lurch.
Alaska and Hawaii are still young, developing states. While Alaska’s infamous “Road to Nowhere,” which would have bridged Ketchikan and its airport on nearby Gravina Island, became an object of ridicule and an example, for critics, of a broken system, earmarks have helped build the state’s infrastructure.
Even today, many communities aren’t connected to road systems; hundreds of miles of the Dalton Highway, leading to Alaska’s prodigious Prudhoe Bay oil fields, are dirt; and basics — like water and sewer systems — are lacking in some remote areas.
To catch a flight from Ketchikan, one must take a ferry to the airport. Kathie Wasserman, executive director of the Alaska Municipal League, said small villages and towns are often unable to get the money on their own — through taxation or bond issues, for example — to cover infrastructure projects.
Some “want to be brought up to the current century,” she said. But in many cases, they also face mandates, from agencies like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to come up to certain standards.
“We’re kind of stuck,” she said.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said the ban is “going to be a real kick in the gut for many of our communities.” She said it will do nothing to put a dent in the federal debt and amounts to the legislative branch “abdicating” its power to appropriate and handing it to federal agencies.
“And I think that is so wrong and so short-sighted,” she said, adding that she believes it’s an effort to get the public to believe Congress is actually doing something about spending. She said she thinks the ban is “going to yield unfortunate results for young emerging states like Alaska that aren’t part of any grid to the Lower 48.”
Funding requests forwarded to Inouye’s committee by Begich in December ranged from multi-million-dollar military projects and $500,000 for seal and stellar sea lion research to funding for community health and energy programs, water treatment and sewer plant work and projects aimed at addressing domestic violence and suicide, scourges the state is also working to combat. Requests from the Fairbanks North Star Borough included $500,000 to replace wood stoves to respond to pollution concerns by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Mayor Luke Hopkins said the community put up $1 million of its own to help residents buy more efficient stoves but that money will run out in a few months. He believes the federal government should step up and help Fairbanks fix a problem it pointed out.
“Our community now, we ask ourselves, How are we going to take care of our needs?” he said. “We haven’t come up with an answer yet.”