My Turn: Federal largesse comes with a price to Alaskans

Posted: Thursday, July 25, 2002

With the recent completion of the legislative session, our elected representatives have returned home proclaiming that state expenditures have been reduced and fiscal responsibility restored. What they didn't say is that overall state spending has increased because state agencies have been granted authority to accept and expend more federal dollars. So what do we Alaskans care whose money is used to help solve our problems? Why not stick it to the feds? Well, in an almost imperceptible way what has been lost in this tidal wave of federal receipts is our ability to solve our problems in our own unique way. By accepting these federal dollars in ever-increasing amounts, we have become subservient to reams of onerous and arcane requirements of the federal government. As a result, our own creative approach to problem solving has been altered to the point where we respond more like Californians, New Englanders and yes, even Texans!

Ask any local or state bureaucrat from Barrow to Metlakatla, from Eagle to Dutch Harbor to describe their primary responsibility and they'll say, "complying with federal audit requirements and counting every bean." We have been programmed to spend obscene amounts of money rather than solve problems. This approach is akin to the flawed premise of the Vietnam War: spend more money and you will win and record high body counts as a measure of victory. If simply spending federal dollars worked, then fundamental problems endemic to our state would have been resolved decades ago. Sadly, such is not the case.

The truth is our once unique, independent character has been undermined by federal dollars from an all-knowing congressional delegation that brags per capita spending in Alaska leads the nation. The perception of the rugged, individualistic Alaskan is a tattered myth. We have only ourselves to blame for this dilemma. By steadfastly resisting the reimposition of a state income tax and spending our Permanent Fund earning to support the kind of government we want and need, we have opened the flood gates to this federal largess. As a result, the spending ratio of federal to state dollars is askew and so is our ability to decide what is best for us as Alaskans.

During the heated statehood debate in 1958, one of Jay Hammond's primary concerns was how to finance the expected increase in bureaucracy when the territory became the 49th state. That question was answered by prompting the feds to foot the bill by providing a bewildering array of programs and projects, some needed and some not. Ernest Gruening and the other founding fathers must be suffering from acute indigestion watching their proud territory become a wholly owned subsidiary of the federal government. Indeed, for them and us, this is cruel irony.

Rest assured that status quo will not change any time soon. Asking our elected officials to resist federal dollars is like trying to prevent a drug addict from getting another badly needed fix. Hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants now drives the annual state budget and dictates state policy. And with the fall elections looming on the horizon, no gubernatorial candidate, past, present or future has the courage and conviction to look our powerful congressional delegation straight in the eye and just say no. As a result, our State Seal and mantra for the new millennium could well read: We bartered away our unique character and problem solving ability for the price of a federal grant.

Greg Capito is a 30-year resident of Juneau.

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