Whether you've gotten a card or not, rest assured that Alaska thanks you for the $454 million Christmas present. Remember those "bridges to nowhere" that were finally taken out of the federal budget? Well, they're back.
You may recall the highway bill that Congress passed in July. It was the biggest porkfest in history -- more than 13,000 individual projects awarded federal tax dollars in an orgy of logrolling and back-scratching. Among the most notorious projects were two bridges in Alaska, dubbed the "bridges to nowhere." The bill included $223 million for a bridge linking Gravina Island to the town of Ketchikan in Alaska. According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, federal taxpayers will eventually pay $315 million for this bridge. Here’s the deal: Ketchikan is a town of 8,000 people (13,000 in the whole county, and population is declining). Its airport is on the nearby Gravina Island. Right now you have to take a 7-minute ferry ride from the airport to the town. To save people that 7-minute ride, Alaska wants to build a $315 million bridge.
The highway bill also awarded Alaska $231 million for the Knik Arm Bridge, which was renamed "Don Young’s Way" in honor of Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and master porkbearer. According to the Alaska Wilderness League, "Construction of the Knik Arm Bridge would connect the city of Anchorage to hundreds of square miles of unpopulated wetlands to the north. Preliminary cost estimates for the bridge are upwards of $2 billion."
But then Hurricane Katrina changed things. In the wake of the devastation of the Gulf Coast and demands for massive federal spending there, critics said Congress should revisit the highway bill and transfer some of the more outrageous spending to Katrina relief. The bridges to nowhere came in for special criticism, with fiscal conservatives and Katrina relief advocates joining forces to insist that the bridge funding be revoked.
It got so bad that Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, roared, "If the Senate decides to discriminate against our state . . . I will resign from this body." Taxpayer advocates could only pray that he would keep his word.
And sure enough, Congress acted. Headlines across the country echoed this one in the New York Times: "Two 'Bridges to Nowhere' Tumble Down in Congress." The Times story began, "Congressional Republicans decided Wednesday to take a legislative wrecking ball to two Alaskan bridge projects that had demolished the party's reputation for fiscal austerity."
Good news indeed. Except -- Ted Stevens didn't resign from Congress. Why not? Because it was all a show, just smoke and mirrors. Congress removed the requirement that Alaska use the money for the bridges to nowhere. But the state still got the money -- a $454 million blank check.
And sure enough, Gov. Frank Murkowski has included money for both bridges in his new state budget. Murkowski, who used to be a senator himself, works closely with the state’s congressional delegation. Indeed, when he was elected governor, he searched the length and breadth of the great state of Alaska to find a qualified replacement and eventually found her across the breakfast table -- his daughter, Lisa, who now works hand in hand with Stevens and Young to keep the funding pipeline flowing.
The federal money for the bridges was real gravy. Alaska has a $1 billion budget surplus, so Governor Murkowski could satisfy all sorts of special interests in his munificent budget proposal. Oil-rich Alaska also has $32 billion in its Permanent Fund.
And here’s a real kicker: The agency building Don Young's Way is advertising for lobbying firms to represent it in Washington at a cost of up to $150,000. The firms would engage in "lobbying, educating, reporting, communicating and coordinating." So some of the $454 million that taxpayers in New York and California and Georgia and every other state are sending to Alaska will be used to hire lobbyists to milk the federal Treasury for even more money.
Merry Christmas, taxpayers.