Alaska tops list of per capita federal spending

Posted: Monday, May 06, 2002

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Even by Alaska standards, it was a big week.

During seven days in mid-April, the federal government issued at least $625 million in grants, loans and contracts in the state.

Such figures are part of the reason Alaska now has the highest per capita rate of federal spending in the nation -- $10,214 in fiscal year 2001 -- according to a U.S. Census Bureau report issued April 23.

The $625 million was announced by the Alaska congressional delegation in one of its occasional summaries of federal projects funded in the state, which usually run in the tens of millions.

The mid-April total was inflated by the contract to build missile defense test facilities at Fort Greely and on Shemya Island. Spending on that contract could go as high as $325 million.

The other $300 million will pay for everything from upgrades at Ted Stevens International Airport to a study of Quonset huts, the half-cylinder corrugated metal buildings that dot Alaska's landscape.

Alaska had 627,000 people as of April 2000, according to the Census Bureau, and the federal government spent $6.4 billion in the state the following fiscal year.

Much of that money flowed through the same federal programs that deliver dollars to the rest of the country. Those programs -- retirement and disability payments, welfare, medical care, food stamps and housing assistance -- roughly track population and its demographics.

Alaska stands out on a per capita basis in three areas.

Its fiscal 2001 federal payroll was $1.4 billion, due in part to a large military presence. Alaska's federal payroll wasn't much below the $1.6 billion spent on federal employees in Oregon, though that state has five times Alaska's population.

Wyoming, another western state with a large amount of rural, federal land, had a federal payroll totaling less than a third of Alaska's, despite a state population of 500,000.

The second area where Alaska wins with the federal government is in the grab-bag of ''other'' direct grants issued by federal agencies. Alaska's total in fiscal 2001 was $1.5 billion. Wyoming got $865 million. Oregon got $2 billion. Utah, with three times as many people as Alaska, got $1.1 billion.

Alaska also prospered in federal highway funding, which the Census Bureau pegged at $334 million last year. That's more than every western state except California, Washington and Arizona.

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, has been a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee for most of his 34-year tenure and is often credited with building up federal spending in Alaska. That credit sometimes comes in unflattering forms, such as the annual ''Pig Book'' awards issued by the Citizens Against Government Waste to members of Congress it considers profligate.

Stevens said last week he doesn't think federal spending in Alaska is inappropriate.

''Really, the problem that's happened is not that the federal government has gone up,'' he said. ''It's that the general economy has gone down. And I continue to worry about that. ''I think we have to do something to rekindle the basic economy of the state, which still is based upon minerals and oil and gas, timber, fishing and tourism. And I think all of those need to be stimulated,'' he said.

Stevens' view is both bolstered and contradicted by a recent report from the state Department of Labor.

''In 1965, the federal government was responsible for a third of the state's gross product,'' the report stated, ''but by 1998 this share had fallen to 13 percent.''

The reason was partly due to shrinkage in the federal work force, particularly the military. But it also was due to growth in the industries Stevens cited, the report said.

The report also noted that the decline in the relative prominence of federal spending has dramatically reversed in recent years.

''In 2000, the federal government spent nearly $6 billion in the state, which was a more than $1.7 billion increase above the 1995 level,'' the report states. ''In nominal dollars this represents a 40 percent increase and in inflation-adjusted dollars an impressive 28 percent boost.''

The timing of the increase roughly corresponds with Stevens' ascendancy to the chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He became chairman in 1997 but lost the position last year to Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.

Stevens remains the ranking Republican member on the committee.

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