- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Here is a sampling of Alaska editorials:

Jan. 20. 2018

Ketchikan Daily News: Earmark attention

If your ears have been burning lately, it might be because Ketchikan is part of the national discussion - once again.

Prompted by remarks from President Donald Trump this past week, America’s political class is talking about the possibility of reviving “earmarks.”

Once upon a time, the congressional budgeting process allowed individual lawmakers to insert provisions - earmarks - into federal legislation. These earmarks directed federal money to specific projects that would benefit a lawmaker’s home district and state.

As such, earmarks were, in part, a tool used in the strategic horsetrading that occurs in Congress to secure individual lawmakers’ support for legislation they might not have supported otherwise, as in, “you can get funding for your pet project if you support my bill.”

Some viewed earmarks as mostly wasteful pork-barrel spending. Others believed earmarks are part of Congress’ rightful control of the federal appropriations process.

So, what does this have to do with Ketchikan?

The earmarks system was in full effect during the mid 2000s when one particular Ketchikan project - for which Congress in 2005 had approved substantial federal earmark funding - caught national attention.

The project was a two-bridge link that would have spanned from Revillagigedo Island over the east channel of Tongass Narrows to Pennock Island and then across the west channel of Tongass Narrows to Gravina Island.

Building the link would have fulfilled a goal that many in the Ketchikan community had been working toward since at least the early 1970s when the Ketchikan International Airport was built on Gravina Island.

However, the project’s remote location resulted in the “bridge to nowhere” nickname that quickly spread across the country, and its estimated total cost of nearly $400 million was savaged as an egregious example of earmark pork-barrel spending.

“Suddenly earmarks went from an obscure Capitol Hill obsession to a public menace,” wrote Kevin Drum in Mother Jones this past year.

By September 2007, then-Gov. Sarah Palin, who had supported the Gravina Access project while running for governor, turned against the project while she was the vice-presidential candidate on the Republican ticket with Sen. John McCain. Palin that month announced that Alaska would not build the Gravina Access bridge. Palin moved a portion of the federal funding to other projects in the state, but allowed about $25 million to be spent on building the Gravina Island Highway that now extends south from the airport to a point near where the proposed bridge link would have made landfall on Gravina.

Although it wouldn’t be built, the “bridge to nowhere” remained Exhibit A in the congressional effort to ban earmarks that was achieved fully by 2011.

“An Alaskan bridge connecting the town of Ketchikan to its local airport and 50 island residents, dubbed the ‘bridge to nowhere,’ famously led to the 2011 ban on earmarks,” Dug Begley and Mihir Zaveri wrote in the Houston Chronicle this week.

“This preposterous earmark was used as the hook by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-OK, to ban the practice of earmarking pork barrel projects,” wrote Forbes contributing writer Ralph Benko.

Since 2011, one would hear occasional nostalgia for earmarks from some quarters, but the topic didn’t resurface in earnest until this past week.

That’s when President Trump mentioned it to lawmakers during a meeting regarding immigration reform.

“You know, our system lends itself to not getting things done,” Trump said, as quoted by The Washington Post. “And I hear so much about earmarks, the old earmark system, how there was a great friendliness when you had earmarks.

“In the old days of earmarks,” Trump continued, “you can say what you want about certain presidents and others, … they went out to dinner at night, and they all got along, and they passed bills. That was an earmark system. And maybe we should think about it.”

The president’s comments - as many of them do - sparked a storm of opinion.

The opinions voiced by various officials and commentators are running mostly against earmarks. The rhetorical weapon of choice is often - you guessed it - Ketchikan’s bridge.

“Remember the infamous ‘Bridge to Nowhere?’” read the opening line of Alan Rappeport’s Jan. 11 story in the New York Times, which had the headline of “To Grease Wheels of Congress, Trump Suggests Bringing Back Pork.”

Jonathan S. Tobin’s “Return of the Ultimate Swamp Creature” critique of earmarks in the National Review places the bridge in the category of outrageous boondoggles.

“The list of egregious examples is long and includes funding for the infamous Alaskan ‘bridge to nowhere,’ Tobin wrote.

Another quote in a cutting editorial in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Revue noted that Republicans lost control of Congress when they ran a “congressional earmark factory.”

“That’s because the stench from political pork - most notably, millions of dollars for Alaska’s ‘bridge to nowhere’ (which ultimately went nowhere) - overpowered spending for deserving projects.”

Other writers mentioned the bridge along an actual earmark-related scandal.

“The bribery scandal that sent former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., to federal prison and funding for a $223 million ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ in Alaska helped set the stage for a Democratic takeover of the House in 2006,” wrote Mike DeBonis and Elise Viebeck in the Washington Post.

That same story quoted the founder of the Courage to Speak Foundation, which once relied on earmark funding to help steer youth away from drug abuse.

“We’re not a Bridge to Nowhere,” said Ginger Katz.

It continues to amaze us that those three words continue to be negative shorthand for all of the perceived ills of the earmark system - and that a Ketchikan circumstance can drive a national debate

The bridge still has its defenders. One of those is Alaska Rep. Don Young, who was quoted by Alaska Public Media on Wednesday as saying the project should have been built.

“There’s never been a bridge anywhere that had anything on the other side until it’s built,” Young said.

Beyond the bridge itself, Young remains one of the strongest proponents of earmarks.

“This to me is one of the crucial issues to this Congress, the next Congress and this House,” Young said Wednesday during a meeting of the House Rules Committee, according to the Alaska Public Media story.

Without earmarks, according to Young, Congress gives spending authority to the executive branch and allows bureaucrats rather than elected representatives the ability to decide where funding goes.

“I call these projects of constituents’ Interests, not earmarks, because these projects come from our people,” Young told the committee. “As long as Congress stays within the parameters of the budget, this doesn’t add to the deficit. We direct the spending instead of the bureaucracy.”

According to information from Young’s office, the representative described his view of the Alaska congressional district.

“My district is a little different from other districts because it’s made up of many, many small communities,” Young said. “Under the current system, we appropriate money to the agencies which in turn goes to our states and in doing so, our rural communities are often forgotten. This is a crucial issue to this Congress. … Until this is solved, we are no longer the Congress of the people, we are just people. We have the responsibility to respond to our constituents’ needs - that’s our job as congressmen.”

We agree with Rep. Young in that elected officials know their district and constituents. As our representatives, the congressional delegation should have an ability to direct appropriate federal funds toward meeting local needs.

As such it’s reasonable to support an earmark program that can accomplish this within constraints that reduce the temptations.

Ketchikan supported the bridge project back in the day as a hard link to the community’s future. The current visceral reaction to “bridge to nowhere” talk is a reminder that - fair or no - the “optics” of that project were quite negative outside of the First City.

It’s worth noting that some of the federal funding was kept secure over time for use with a project to improve access between Revillagigedo and Gravina islands. A project is set to commence soon, and, while not a hard link like a bridge, it will improve the ferry link and reliability.

As that project gets underway, it’s a little bizarre to be hearing the “bridge to nowhere” phrase rumble back into the public eye.

Gravina continues to be an opportunity for expansion of the community. It’s definitely “somewhere” for us.


Jan. 21, 2018

Peninsula Clarion: Last chance for compromise

“Compromise is not capitulation.” That was Gov. Bill Walker’s message to legislators in his State of the State speech on Thursday.

“The longer we hold onto partisanship, the longer we hold onto the deficit,” Walker said.

Compromise is certainly a noble aspiration, and it’s what we should expect of our elected officials as Alaska continues to face challenges. But it’s also proven to be much easier said than done, as lawmakers, with a few notable exceptions, have been unable to find common ground - or at least unwilling to acknowledge that any exists - throughout Gov. Walker’s first three years in office.

So, what can we reasonably expect to change in the next 85 days (the Legislature gaveled in for a 90-day regular session Tuesday)?

If lawmakers are serious about a budget fix - and everyone in Juneau claims to be - work on a compromise bill needs to start immediately. If you’re so inclined, you can actually put together a Venn diagram with revenue and spending measures from Gov. Walker, and the Senate and House majorities. You will find areas of agreement, most notably, the idea that some sort of mechanism to use some of the earnings from the Alaska Permanent Fund to pay for state services is essential to re-establishing the state’s fiscal stability.

The concept has been bouncing around the Legislature for three years, and while there has been agreement on the concept, each side has added enough caveats to their proposal to make it unacceptable to the other. In last year’s legislative session, the Senate plan called for deeper cuts and use of savings to cover the rest of the deficit until the state’s revenue flow rebounds. The House insisted that any use of Permanent Fund earnings be contingent on passage of a broad-based state tax.

And Alaska has been stuck in a stalemate ever since.

Oddly, this may be the session we see partisanship break down - at least on certain issues. There are number of Republicans and Democrats seeking to enshrine the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend program in the state’s constitution.

Perhaps this is the issue over which a compromise can be reached. Gov. Walker and others have asserted that without a long-term budget fix, the dividend program will eventually go away. The state’s courts have agreed that the dividend is a legislative appropriation, not an entitlement. Maybe we’re finally at a point that a plan to take structured draws from Permanent Fund earnings while preserving the dividend program is palatable.

Because the other option - leaving a budget fix to the next Legislature, which, with state savings gone, will have very little option other than to use Permanent Fund earnings - is not.


Jan. 24, 2018

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: Moving forward with double-roundabout project is progress

The Alaska Department of Transportation plans to move ahead with its double-roundabout project at the intersection of Chena Hot Springs Road and the Steese Highway. The department intends to begin construction in the summer of 2020. When completed, there will be a roundabout on Chena Hot Springs Road on each side of the Steese overpass. The roundabout on the east side of the overpass will have a bypass lane for people who are traveling north on the Steese Highway and turning eastbound onto Chena Hot Springs Road.

The addition of roundabouts at this intersection is a welcome improvement. Studies in the Interior and the U.S. show roundabouts have improved the flow of traffic and reduced collisions.

Poor visibility at the intersection, particularly when turning left from Chena Hot Springs Road to merge southbound onto the Steese Highway, make the intersection more dangerous than the average intersection. The high speed of highway driving, overpass and long sections of frost-heaved roadway contribute to the danger of the intersection.

You don’t have to look further than North Pole to see how roundabouts can positively impact a community. There have been zero crash-related injuries at the Badger Road and Richardson Highway roundabouts since they were completed about 10 years ago, according to DOT. The overall number of crashes was reduced by 68 percent, too. On a national level, intersections converted to roundabouts saw a 90 percent reduction in collision fatalities and a 76 percent reduction in injuries.

Drivers need to stop far less at roundabouts than stoplights or signs, which means the intersection will be less congested during peak traffic hours. DOT project manager Carl Heim expects the number of drivers will increase in the coming years when the F-35 fighter jets arrive at Eielson Air Force Base, bringing with them a couple thousand airmen, their families and government contractors.

Despite roundabouts’ proven ability to tame traffic, the Chena Hot Springs Road project has received lots of criticism. In 2016, a couple of public information meetings were held; opposition was intense, and two state legislators got involved. Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, and Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, tried to prevent the project by writing language into the 2016 budget that would prohibit state money from being spent on it.

Since then, DOT officials have done a fair amount of public-relations work to sway public opinion. Mr. Heim, who is managing the project, said a contractor was hired to conduct phone surveys to help them address people’s concerns. Mr. Heim believes most people now support the project.

Though the state is in the midst of a financial crisis, DOT won’t have to worry about project funding being slashed in the legislative session. The department will pay for the roundabouts with federal Highway Safety Improvement Program money, about $5 million, that DOT is required to spend on dangerous intersections.

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