Saturday, February 09, 2008

The Truth About Alaska's "Earmarks" - Why They Are Justified

The appropriations bills recently signed into law by President George W. Bush contain 12,000 earmarks worth $15.3 billion, despite the fact that President Bush has directed various federal agencies to cut back on earmark spending as much as possible. A table listing the number and value of earmarks directed to each state from this new budget can be found HERE (although the link is down as of post time). As a substitute, check this table from 2005 which shows that, despite its large size, Alaska has actually been rather far down the list in number and value of earmarks.

Continuing with Alaska's earmarks, some were voted upon in bills and do not appear in supplemental reports. Others are relegated to supplemental reports, because of the sheer volume, as they are for all states. And there is a reason for earmarks. As Senator Ted Stevens explains, without earmarks, the president and his bureaucracy decide where budgeted money is spent in a state or community without regard for the wishes of the people in a state or community as expressed through their elected representatives. Even Anchorage's Democratic Mayor Mark Begich has defended Alaska earmarks directed towards the city, saying they would stand up to scrutiny.

But Alaska isn't the earmark hog that an ignorant, sensationalist media portrays it to be. According to Senator Stevens, Alaska receives about $2 in earmarks for every federal acre in Alaska. Only Nebraska receives less, $1 per acre. All the states whose members of Congress are critical of earmarks for Alaska receive much more per federal acre, like $78 for Connecticut.

Yet detractors are fond of pointing to the fact that Alaska receives more federal dollars per person, $14,000, than other states. Conveniently overlooked is the combination of Alaska's large geographical size and small population. The problem is that judging federal assistance to Alaska solely by the "per-capita" standard conveys both an incomplete and distorted picture of the situation in the Last Frontier. This means we must use an additional standard to clarify the picture.

And in an opinion column published February 5th, 2008 in the Voice Of The Times, former Ketchikan Mayor Lew Williams, a frequent contributor to VOT, does precisely that. He proposes the "dollars-per-federal-acre" standard. Validating this standard is that the state of Alaska provides infrastructural services to federal land and facilities out of state funds, but we cannot legally tax federal land. So the federal earmarks are intended to help us defray the cost of servicing federal land and facilities. Here's how Lew Williams describes it:

Of the 365 million acres called Alaska, 252 million, 69 percent, are nontaxable federal land. That federal area in Alaska is more than twice the area of California. The federal government must contribute something in lieu of taxes or it is a long walk or swim to Alaska from the Lower 48. Alaskans provide access to federal lands — the ports, harbors, highways, airports; plus the infrastructure to serve federal areas like medical facilities, utilities, schools, housing and so forth.Actually the federal government isn't contributing enough to Alaska in lieu of taxes. Sen. Stevens provides the following figures from the Congressional Research Service:

- There are 79 million acres of parks in the United States, 51 million in Alaska (65 percent) but Alaska receives only 3 percent of Park Service funds.

- There are 193 million acres of national forests in the United States, 22 million in Alaska (11 percent) but only 4 percent of forest funds are used in Alaska.

- There are 96 million acres of wildlife refuges in the United States, 77 million of those acres (80 percent) in Alaska but only 11 percent of wildlife funds are spent in Alaska.

Instead of looking at federal spending in Alaska per person, look at spending per acre of nontaxable federal land — what the feds pay in lieu of taxes. Alaska is dead last, and by a wide margin. Taxpayers are led to believe that Alaska gets much more federal money than other states. That is not close to the truth. Arizona got five times the federal dollars in fiscal 2005 as came to Alaska; Ohio more than nine times; and Florida 15 times.

Or, look at it another way, Alaska received $35.55 per federal acre in the state. Wyoming was next lowest at $181.33. Connecticut, represented by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, received $2,208,000 per federal acre! And his partner in locking up Alaska, Sen. John McCain, saw his state of Arizona given $1,278 per acre.

Both the "per-capita" standard and the "dollars-per-federal-acre" standard should be used - as a check and balance against each other. But in the final analysis, if the feds want to keep so much of our land in their custody in a state of our size, and expect us to provide infrastructural services to it, then it is reasonable to ask the feds to pony up, just like we would ask any private landowner to pay. And that's why earmarks are justified in concept, although the amount is always subject to negotiation, based upon changing requirements. Even so, Governor Sarah Palin has urged Alaskans to become more self-reliant and less dependent upon earmarks. So we do recognize that the federal treasury is not a bottomless cornucopia, and we don't expect to be handed a blank check.

But if the feds aren't going to pay us property taxes like private landowners do, it's only fair to expect the feds to make up for it in some way. They don't deserve a free ride, either.

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