Government spending, policies ignite the Alaska economy

Posted: Monday, June 06, 2005

Ketchikan Daily News By Lew Williams

The Alaska economy is great by any measure, thanks to Gov. Frank Murkowski emphasizing economic development, backed up by the Alaska Legislature and supported by Alaska's congressional delegation.

Just look at the figures. One day recently, the Ketchikan Daily News listed 40 help wanted advertisements, the Juneau Empire ran 65, the Anchorage Daily News had more than 230, and the Fairbanks News-Miner, 115. Many hundred more job openings are listed on the state's job Web site:

Many of the jobs require an education or a skill acquired only through education. The state administration and the Legislature in its recent special session increased funds for schools by $70 million and the University of Alaska by $97 million, half of that for construction or maintenance.

The real boost came when the lawmakers in special session approved $750 million for construction projects, $100 million of that to finish financing this year's construction. Much of that also is for schools. There is money for roads, other infrastructure and projects to better serve Alaskans throughout the state. How many more jobs will $750 million create? Many, and most in high-paying fields.

More jobs and more training for Alaskans to fill them. What's wrong with that?

When Congress finally acts on the $284-$295 billion, six-year federal highway program this year, more millions in construction will come to Alaska. Again, they are high-paying jobs. There might even be money for starting the Juneau access, the Gravina Island access and the Knik Arm crossing. Also being considered by the Murkowski administration are better Sitka access, continental highway access via Bradfield Canal and access to resources and small communities throughout the state.

Some critics of the Alaska highway projects complain that Alaskans will have to pay for it in higher taxes and for road maintenance. The truth is that Alaskans have been paying for the highways and their maintenance since 1932, every time they filled their gas tanks. They still pay and will continue to pay, regardless of what happens in Alaska. The current federal gasoline tax is 18.3 cents per gallon. (Alaska tacks on 10 cents more.)

Alaskans did not share in federal gas taxes, although they paid them, until statehood in 1959. Sen. Ted Stevens and congressman Don Young continually argue that Alaska is entitled to more funds to catch up with other states. If our congressional delegation is successful, Alaskans will get some transportation funds, ferries are included. If not, the money goes to other states.

Last week, the Murkowski administration greatly increased timber sales on state lands, directed primarily to supply small mills for value-added wood production. More high-paying jobs. The Murkowski administration is seeking builders for the Alaska natural gas pipeline. It is talking with Canadians about extending the Alaska Railroad to connect with the Canadian and continental rail systems. More jobs.

It's a natural reaction to the party out of power and the majority of journalists to constantly criticize the Alaska Legislature, along with the governor, especially when special sessions are called. Some of that criticism is appropriate. The 20th State Legislature was called into special session twice in 1997-98 by Gov. Tony Knowles to deal with subsistance. It accomplished nothing in nine days at a cost of $250,000.

The 21st Legislature was called into session three times by Knowles for a total of 18 days at a cost of $428,000. It passed budget bills but failed to pass a long-range finance plan or act on subsistance.

The first session of the 24th State Legislature, the most recent, was called into session and met for 14 days at a cost of $450,000. It accomplished a lot, which is why we question criticism of the session or of the governor who called the session and set the agenda.

In addition to the capital construction program and increasing money for K-12 education, the special session established portable 401(k)-style retirement accounts for future state employees and teachers, and increased contributions to teachers' retirement. The 401(k)-style plan is similar to what President George Bush is pushing for Social Security and similar to what members of Congress already have created for themselves. It puts the employee in charge of his or her money. It follows him or her from job to job, and its stays with a worker until its balance, after contributing to retirement, goes to heirs on the worker's death.

The lawmakers reformed the workers' compensation system to slow the increase in insurance rates, which enables employers to hire more people.

At the governor's request, lawmakers conveyed 250,000 acres of state land to the University of Alaska. That qualifies the university to receive another 250,000 acres of federal lands. Earnings from the land pays for increased education programs to train Alaskans for Alaska jobs and funds the Alaska Scholars program that provides a four-year scholarship for the top 10 percent of each Alaska high school class.

All of this plus living in a state that pays each citizen a dividend instead of collecting an income tax. What's the complaint?

• Lew M. Williams Jr. is the former publisher of the Ketchikan Daily News.

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