For the first time since the oil price crash wiped out the annual Alaska budget for pork, Gov. Mike Dunleavy is taking advantage of the temporary increase in federal money from Congress to buy votes in the Legislature and elsewhere with projects aimed at special interest groups and regions.
Dunleavy has been busy setting himself up to run for re-election in 2022 and all of his pronouncements have to be viewed in that context, which is missing from the news coverage.
He has sprinkled special favors into the capital budget. Here are some prime examples of requests to the Legislature that carry the distinct aroma of a porkfest, timed to boost the Dunleavy re-election campaign.
• Giving VOICE of the Arctic Inupiat, a nonprofit corporation that lobbies for oil development and other resource projects on the North Slope, $1 million for its operations. The nonprofit members include the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and 23 other private and public entities. The group does not need a state subsidy.
• Providing $7 million, with $3 million directly from the feds, to fight actions that Dunleavy considers “unnecessary” regarding the federal Endangered Species Act. “If unchecked, regulatory burdens will expand due to federal endangered species issues. This expansion will restrict states’ rights and the ability of industry to operate in Alaska,” the Dunleavy administration says. It’s a bit rich that the state will be using federal money to fight federal actions.
• Providing $5 million to pursue the Dunleavy announcement about claiming authority on navigable waters and on RS2477 trails.
• Putting $10 million more into the work advancing the 100-mile route targeted by the West Susitna Access Study.
• Adding $7.5 million to the Ambler Road project led by the Alaska Industrial Development & Export Authority. The document given to legislators does not explain why this money is needed, given the recent action by AIDEA to put $35 million in the project.
• The most flagrant political item in the Dunleavy gift bag is the idea of giving the Mat-Su borough $10 million to spend on whatever road projects the borough deems the most important. The money can be spent on fixing pavement and other safety concerns. Sending money to Mat-Su and not to other boroughs is obvious favoritism. It also allows the anti-tax contingent of that community to escape some of the consequences of operating without a fiscal plan. Perhaps this money is to secure votes from reluctant Mat-Su legislators on the Dunleavy Permanent Fund Dividend plan.
• The Arctic Strategic Transportation and Resource includes $5 million, some of which would be spent on geologic studies for NPRA and ANWR.
• Dunleavy wants the Denali Commission to get $15 million of federal Covid relief money for work on possible road projects — Noatak to Red Dog Mine, Kaktovik to Dalton Highway, Rampart to Elliott Highway and others.
• Providing $5 million to resuscitate the old dream of turning more than 100,000 acres in the Nenana-Totchaket area into a center of agriculture. The two-page description given legislators doesn’t explain exactly how much more state money would be required to see the development of a major agricultural enterprise in Nenana.
Many of these items are listed as one-time-only projects with no costs in future years, but that is nonsense. For most projects, the future costs are unacknowledged.
The Legislature is likely to delete some of the governor’s requests and add others before the capital budget is complete. Its members also realize the 2022 election is not that far off.
The temporary federal money has given many some state officials — whose vision doesn’t go beyond the next election — a false sense that the budget problems have dissipated, so they can spread cash hither and yon, just like in the old days.
Dermot Cole, a longtime columnist and reporter from Fairbanks, writes about Alaska politics and other topics on his blog Reporting From Alaska, which can be found at www.dermotcole.com.