By Larry Persily
The federal money that will flow into our state from the American Rescue Plan — the latest round of pandemic aid from Washington, D.C. — is the proverbial once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Alaskans to do good things with more than $2 billion.
The total includes almost $1.2 billion that will go to the state, $357 million for schools, $230 million for local communities, a couple hundred million dollars more for housing assistance, tens of millions each for energy improvements to homes, the university, child care and COVID-19 testing, and a few million for other assistance categories.
And while the federal government has not issued all the rules for spending the money — part of the $1.9 trillion individual, state, community and business pandemic-relief legislation signed by the president last month — the rules will be looser than they were for last year’s CARES Act federal funding. Yes, there will be strings attached, as there always are with government money, but they will be comfortable strings, not choker collars.
Though some of the money is non-discretionary, such as housing assistance, child care grants and COVID-19 testing, most of the $1.2 billion to the state and $230 million for cities and boroughs and unincorporated areas across the Alaska can go toward most anything to repair the economic, individual and community damage of the pandemic.
And that’s where the Alaska Legislature, and municipal councils and assemblies, need to stop, ask questions, talk with people who worked on last year’s CARES Act programs and those who received the grants, and figure out what worked, what didn’t, and where the money can do the most good this year.
The Legislature is starting to hold hearings on the federal windfall. States and communities have until 2024 to spend the money, and Alaska lawmakers are already talking about stretching out the one-time federal dollars, rather than jumping into our state’s long-established affliction of spending as much as we can get as fast as we can.
Alaska’s fiscal problems still exist and are only getting worse as we approach our 10th year in a row of taking from savings to balance the budget. Most lawmakers know it would be a bad idea to use all of the federal money as a large BandAid over our self-inflicted wound of no taxes and lust for an unaffordable Permanent Fund dividend.
But what are the best ideas for using the new money? What are the ideas that will provide lasting benefits for Alaskans? Food boxes for people in need is a perfect use of the money today, but job training, child care assistance during training, apprenticeships and relocation expenses to real jobs can make a long-term difference.
Providing financial aid for businesses that want to reopen but cannot afford the risk of restocking might be a good use of the federal dollars to restore jobs and economic activity.
Putting a lot of money into marketing Alaska for independent travelers has been talked about for years. Seems like now is a good time to promote the tourism sector.
Catching up on deferred maintenance on schools, public buildings, roads, harbors and water systems would put people to work and relieve communities of unaffordable debt in the years ahead.
But first, legislators need to take the time and ask the questions: What did we learn from the $1.25 billion Washington sent the state last year under the CARES Act, and how can we do even better this year.
Larry Persily is the publisher of the Wrangell Sentinal and former publisher of The Skagway News.