It’s known as The Last Frontier. But lately, Alaska is worried the rest of America sees it as the Freeloading Frontier.
Gov. Frank Murkowski says it is time for an image makeover. He wants the state to hire a public relations firm to change the perception of Alaska and its people as greedy for federal dollars and all too willing to plunder the environment for profit.
Ultimately, he wants to sway public opinion in favor of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
Most Alaska politicians favor drilling in the refuge, which would fill the state’s coffers like the trans-Alaska oil pipeline has done for decades. But environmentalists have fought back for a quarter-century, and in December the state was thwarted again in Congress.
Alaska suffered another setback a few months ago during the furor over $450 million Congress appropriated for two “Bridges to Nowhere” that became symbols of wasteful spending. Late-night comics mocked Alaska, and a columnist at The Washington Post jokingly recommended the United States sell Alaska back to Russia.
'Alaska does not just take'
In reaction, Murkowski announced during his State of the State Address in January a plan to counter misperceptions about Alaska.
“Alaska does not just take. We give, and we have the capacity to give much, much more — if permitted to do so,” he said.
Alaska is one of the top recipients of federal largesse. In 2003, the latest year for which figures are available, Alaska received $1.89 in federal spending for every $1 the state paid in taxes to Washington, according to the Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan research organization. The state ranked second, behind New Mexico. Alaska ranked highest in per-capita dollars received from the federal government that year, the group reported.
At the same time, Alaska residents pay no state income tax, and only a few cities have a sales tax. In fact, every year, practically every man, woman and child in Alaska receives a share of the state’s oil wealth just for living here. Last year’s dividend check was for $845.76.
Ketchikan commercial fisherman Fred Athorp, 68, recalled the remarks some Florida lobstermen made to him a few years ago. “They said, ‘We aren’t in Alaska, where we drive down to our boats in our Rolls-Royces,”’ Athorp said. “There’s quite a few misconceptions.”
As for why Alaska gets so much money from Washington, the congressional delegation and state leaders say it is because Alaska is a young state that lacks the infrastructure and services the rest of the nation has.
Critics say the real reason is that Alaska’s congressional delegation, led by former Appropriations Committee Chairman Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young, is remarkably adroit at bringing home the pork.
Rich in resources
John Katz, an aide to the governor, said the public does not realize how much Alaska — bought in 1867 for around 2 cents an acre by Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state, William Seward — contributes in oil, gas, minerals and other resources.
The North Slope pumped out an average of 916,000 barrels of oil a day last year. Fishermen pulled 5.4 billion pounds of fish from Alaska’s waters in 2004. The state played host to 1.4 million tourists that year. The Red Dog Mine is the largest zinc mining operation in the world, and gold mining is undergoing a resurgence.
“I think it’s a brilliant idea, a master stroke on the part of the governor,” said Rob Allyn, president of the Dallas public relations firm Allyn & Co., which lists heads of state and foreign political parties among its clients. “The image problems Alaska faces, and the global misconceptions of Alaska, are as great today as when Alaska was mislabeled Seward’s Folly.”