Alaskans, be thankful for our good financial fortune

Posted: Wednesday, October 05, 2005


The Alaska Observer

In one week most Alaskans will receive the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend, many through the magic of direct deposit. We'll wake up to find well over $800 awaiting us in a bank account we designated back in the spring upon filing dividend applications. This annual ritual is of course very nice for each of us as we contemplate how best to expend these funds. Whether toward the payment of pre-existing debt, or the acquisition of some choice good or service that we otherwise should forego, the extra money is pleasing, in the way that capitalism envisions the relief from scarcity ought to be.

This year Alaskans will be the beneficiaries of some other pennies from heaven, whose similarity to the permanent fund dividend bear consideration. It seems to make at least a little sense to reflect on good things when times are good, because often when things are less good, it's harder to focus one's thoughts on comfortable moments gone by.

First, we've heard a lot lately about so-called "pork barrel" spending and "bridges to nowhere." With all due respect for those calling for the rededication of funds to hurricane relief efforts, I think there are some shallow arguments going on here. Many, if not most, dollars spent by the federal government engender some sort of criticism. Many of these criticisms have some merit, but a big-picture assessment of the way money is spent over time ought to underlie them all. States with small populations are dependent upon the longevity of their congressional delegations to get sizable allocations over the long haul. As anyone who hasn't been frozen in glacial ice for a decade knows, Alaska is near the apogee of a longevity cycle. With that comes high levels of funding, such as is contained in Congressman Don Young's transportation bill. Personally, I resent a bridge from the Port of Anchorage to Point McKenzie being called a bridge to nowhere, but perhaps that's my bias being a former Valley resident. And to those who think there's no sense in connecting Revillagigedo and Gravina Islands, I submit that many in Douglas held similar sentiments when the first Gastineau Channel crossing was debated and built. I suspect that most of those calling for the rescission of transportation project appropriations were against them before Katrina wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast. For those not predisposed against the targeted projects, I say, if you think we can just give this money back now and see it replaced anytime soon, you haven't followed the workings of Congress lately.

The other embarrass de richesse Alaskans are now facing is the enormous budget surplus we'll see in the current fiscal year. Having been a legislative aide for half a decade when the fiscal gap occupied every one's thoughts, it is a little bewildering that so much money is coming in now, but even crazier is the effect this massive income produces. The Alaska Legislature was barely able to grapple with the inherent instability in the state's budget when we were running a deficit - now that we're bucks up, it becomes almost impossible. This is because it is only the threat of a depleted constitutional budget reserve, and raids on the permanent fund, that seems able to generate dialogue about other means of annual support for state services. Simply speaking, our trust fund makes us hesitant about getting a day job. I am very grateful for the work of the legislative leadership over the past ten years in whittling down operating expenses, and to Governor Murkowski for keeping a sharp eye on current spending. At the same time, I know that we're at the point now where putting some new funding streams into place is a wise idea. I only hope that it is possible for those writing budgets to sidestep the piles of money in the Capitol and keep their eyes on the worthy goal of a long-term plan that will endure the current bonanza in oil prices.

At the end of the day, whether it is a permanent fund dividend in one's personal bank account, generous allocation of federal funds, thanks to our long-lived and shrewd congressional delegation, or barrelfuls of cash into state coffers from high oil prices, money alone isn't going to buy us happiness. But the satisfaction of appreciating how fortunate we are, combined with the prudent expenditure of the resources we have on things that are sustainable and will benefit large numbers of Alaskans, are as wise a course to follow as we may hope to do.

• Benjamin Brown was born in Anchorage, raised in Palmer and is now lucky enough to call Juneau home, a fact he tries to remember each and every day.

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