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Anti-earmark battle takes toll on Alaska

Budget cuts may be a result of state's own actions

Posted: Sunday, April 04, 2010

Alaska may soon have to ween itself from the federal aid it's become accustomed to receiving.

The state's top lobbyist in Washington, D.C. is warning legislators that there will not only be less federal money available to the state but also that the national government will continue to try to shift costs as well.

Alaska's congressional delegation doesn't have the same pull as it did when former Sen. Ted Stevens was in office and able to secure billions in pork-barrel projects. Additionally, rising national deficits have made federal money harder to come by.

There's a "growing recognition in Congress that we must get control of the annual federal deficit and the national debt," said John Katz, director of state-federal relations for Alaska and special counsel to Gov. Sean Parnell.

"While earmarks play only a small role in the federal budget, they have an out-sized role in the debate over federal spending," Katz said.

That process was first magnified with the arrival of former Gov. Sarah Palin, and now with Gov. Sean Parnell, warning against a reliance on federal money.

Legislators often have other ideas, however, and last year overturned Palin's attempt to reject some federal stimulus money, even while railing against what they saw as federal attempts to assert authority in Alaska on a wide variety of fronts ranging from environmental regulation to individual liberty.

Anchorage Daily News columnist Julia O'Malley characterized Alaska's attitude as "Dear Feds: We loathe you. Please send money."

Speaking before a joint session of the Legislature, Sen. Mark Begich pointed the finger at Parnell and his regular threats of lawsuits against the feds even while seeking money.

"Julia wasn't far off the mark," Begich told legislators.

A dispute over earmarks

State government earmark requests to Congress peaked at more than $250 million in 2007, but have declined steadily since. This year, the state is seeking only $22.4 million. Also in 2007, the state sought money for 63 projects. This year they're seeking money for eight, according to the state's Office of Management and Budget.

Katz said Alaska is choosing its funding requests very carefully. The state looks for programs with a strong federal nexus, widespread public support and often tries to make sure there's another source of money.

In Congress, both parties have begun to frown on earmarks, as well. Democratic leaders in the House have barred earmarks for private businesses, while House Republicans have called for a one-year moratorium on earmarks by their members.

Yet Alaska's Congressman, Don Young, has said he'll continue to pursue needed earmarks.

While the state government is seeking dramatically fewer of these specifically allocated funds, other entities, including local governments, nonprofits and private businesses, have continued to seek earmarks.

Katz' office said Alaska Delegation members have received more than 500 earmark requests totaling $3 billion. Even that is down from past numbers.

The earmark issue in recent years has led to divisions between some of the state's top political leaders. In 2008, Parnell, who was then Palin's lieutenant governor, challenged Young in the Republican primary. He lost narrowly to the longtime incumbent.

Parnell's campaign, at the time, got strong support from an out-of-state conservative anti-earmark group, Club For Growth. The organization backed him and attacked Young.

After Young won re-election, he announced he would be returning to seek more earmarks for Alaska.

As governor, Palin stopped work on the Gravina Island Access Project, known nationally as the "Bridge to Nowhere." At the time, she said she stopped work due to the state's inability to get the bridge paid for by the federal government. However, while running for vice president, she said it was because she opposed earmarking.

Earmarks defended in Alaska, elsewhere

Katz said that some earmark requests made by the state are justified because federal funding formulas for programs sometimes don't treat Alaska fairly because of certain unique circumstances - one such instance being areas within the state with low population densities. Additionally, funding for Native American programs are sometimes linked to reservations. However, Alaska has a large Native population, but few reservations.

Katz said that Alaska is also changing its methods of seeking funding. The state is now trying to get included in the budget submitted by the president, as opposed to seeking funds later through Congress.

"We now jawbone more with federal agencies to get more money in the core budget, and we have become more agile in the process of competitive federal grants," he said.

While U.S. House leaders have challenged the earmarking process, it hasn't come under the same scrutiny in the Senate. Some top leaders in the Senate feel that specific funding is set up as it is as part of appropriation powers given to Congress in the U.S. Constitution. These same lawmakers are reluctant to give up that ability.

"While the number of earmarks are going to go down, I don't think they are going to go away," Katz said.

With a new Democratic administration in Washington, D.C., Alaska's single Democrat in the Congressional delegation may be the focus of the state's budget requests.

In a recent interview in Juneau, after his address to the Alaska Legislature, Begich said Alaska's actions make it tough to obtain funding where tight economic times have made people look for reasons to not fund things.

"The louder we say back home the federal government is the evil demon and we don't need their help or support, that's problematic," he said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 586-4816 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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