Stimulus funds begin to trickle into Alaska

WASHINGTON — Gov. Sarah Palin may have turned down $28.6 million in federal stimulus money for weatherization and renewable energy projects, but the state will still do very well when it comes to the Recovery Act.

An estimated $1.3 to $1.5 billion is coming Alaska's way — with some of it already on the street and in some cases, already spent.

"It's huge. There's no question in my mind that we were going to benefit significantly," said Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska.

Already, the city of Anchorage is devoting part of a $775,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to hire a full-time coordinator to address homelessness in the city. Public-use cabins along the Iditarod Trail are under construction with $400,000 of the $84.5 million in Interior Department money coming to Alaska for reclaiming mines, monitoring volcanoes and rehabilitating trails within national parks, among other projects. There's even money to remove a wrecked aircraft, drums and trash in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

And the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is set to break ground on what will be the first infrastructure project from its $461 million stimulus budget: the construction of a $17 million causeway and dock in Gustavus that the department estimates will employ 30 people.

Then there are the big-ticket items, such as $197 million in Department of Defense spending, and a new hospital in Nome. The $171 million hospital project is being paid for with $146 million in Recovery Act money, plus $15 million from the Denali Commission, which oversees federal spending on rural infrastructure in Alaska. Another $10 million is coming from the Indian Health Service.

The hospital project already is out to bid, said the Denali Commission's chief operating officer, Krag Johnsen.

"I've worked for the commission for 10 years, and that's the biggest rural construction project we've seen," Johnsen said.

The commission has on loan a full-time legislative staffer, a federal employee and several other people devoted to managing the money. As the coordinating agency for federal Recovery Act money, the commission has taken hundreds of phone calls from schools, local governments and other agencies across the state with an interest in accessing federal grant programs.

"What you're starting to see now is exactly what the stimulus bill was intended to do," said Begich, who on Thursday criticized Palin for turning down the energy money.

"People are starting to see this money be unleashed. Because they're talking about it, they feel like there's hope and opportunity," he said. "That's exactly what you want to occur."

His Republican counterpart, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, voted against the stimulus bill. But she, too, marveled last month at the amount of money that her staff determined would be coming to the state: an estimated $197 million in Department of Defense stimulus spending, largely for restoring and modernizing facilities on military bases within Alaska.

The investment "goes to prove once again that Alaska is one of the most strategic places in the world from a military perspective," Murkowski said in a press release.

The stimulus program is not without its critics, namely Palin, who said Thursday in her announcement that she was vetoing some energy money because she had concerns about the accompanying building code requirements. Alaskans "have a long history of independence and opposing many mandates from Washington, D.C.," Palin said in a press release.

Spending so much money so quickly also has its pitfalls, and the Interior Department is being careful to avoid some of them in Alaska. The agency will verify how all stimulus money is going to the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Alaska roads program, in the wake of an inspector general's report alleging mismanagement and the waste of millions in tax dollars.

The report found $32 million in program funding went to Alaska Native communities each year and only about $3 to $4 million in roads projects had any physical oversight or verification of work completed. Recovery Act money will only be distributed to the BIA roads program in Alaska once the Interior Department determines there are sufficient controls over spending and accountability in place, a spokeswoman said this week.

Right now, it's difficult to tell whether per capita, Alaska is getting more money than other states. Per capita comparisons are difficult with the stimulus money because it specifically directs money to some of the hardest-hit states, said Josh Picker, a research associate for economic policy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress.

But Alaska is doing well, regardless of how the money is calculated.

"Although way down bottom in terms of population, it gets the 36th most in terms of absolute dollars," Picker said. For overall transportation and infrastructure spending, Alaska is 42nd, Picker said, still "more than its population share."

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