On the Stimulus, Alaska, and the Soul of the Nation

Dust and ashes, dead and done with, Venice spent what Venice earned.
The soul, doubtless, is immortal — where a soul can be discerned.

Those lines are from one of my favorite poems, A Toccata of Galuppi’s by Robert Browning. They’ve been running through my mind for weeks now every time I think about the stimulus and the future of my country.

They were on my mind today as I read Gov. Palin’s decision on the stimulus.

Her position has been consistent. Her concerns about the stimulus have never changed. She was very clear in her March 20th press statement:

“I will not request stimulus package funds that subject Alaska to more federal control and ever-increasing federal mandates. And that’s why we’re seeking more information on every line item that we’d have to include if we were to request more from the feds. That’s what the open, legislative, public process will
provide – more opportunity for more information.”

As I noted at the time, Alaska lawmakers are concerned about the sustainability of their budget. In an article in the Alaska Journal of Commerce, Rep. Mike Hawker (R-Anchorage) was quoted as saying:

“This is a responsible budget, but not a sustainable budget….It meets the needs of Alaska, but also needs to be the beginning of a new discussion about what we expect from government and how we are going to pay for it. The continuing decline in oil production on the North Slope is Alaska’s greatest challenge, and we must engage in a frank public discussion of this reality and our alternate courses of action.”

Those are frightening words. The state’s current level of spending is not sustainable if the price of oil declines. They can’t afford to grow government. It’s as simple as that.

With regards to the stimulus package, Gov. Palin’s concerns can be separated into two categories: concerns for Alaska and concerns for the nation as a whole.

The crux of her concern for Alaska regarding the stimulus has always been “budget sustainability and federal ‘strings’ that would dictate state policy” in the future.

The crux of her concern for the nation has always been the fact that we can’t borrow ourselves out of recession and the fear that we’re sacrificing our long-term fiscal sovereignty. She spoke briefly and passionately about this in her speech in Indiana:

This isn’t free money, folks. Our nation is 11 trillion dollars in debt. This is borrowed money. We’re borrowing from China. We may find ourselves someday enslaved to countries that hold our notes — countries that don’t necessarily have America’s best interest in mind.

She also articulated her fears for Alaska (and for all the states) in that speech:

Being enslaved to bigger, more centralized government as a result of blindly taking these federal dollars as bailout money and funding local government to grow to sustain the services that this temporary one-time funding will pay for — ultimately that takes away opportunities to develop and to progress and be self-sufficient and be free.

The need to be free to develop is something near and dear to every Alaskan’s heart. The federal government still controls most of the land and resources in Alaska. There is something terribly servile and humiliating about the way in which the powerful and un-elected Interior Secretary jets into Alaska like a visiting monarch, and all the Alaskan officials must line up to kiss his ring. This powerful and un-elected official from a distant capital that doesn’t understand or even really care about Alaska has the power to prevent the state from developing its own resources.

It’s a master/slave relationship. For years, Alaska behaved as a petulant teenager. The federal government refused to let them grow up, so they simply demanded more allowance money. Give us pork! And why not? They are hardworking and industrious people, they want to use their own land, and Big Daddy Government in D.C. won’t let them. Sarah Palin came in and decided that this parent/teenager relationship was unhealthy. She cut back the pork requests because pork is “Turkish Delight” — only the first taste is free. There are strings attached. Sarah Palin wants Alaska to grown up and clean up. Eventually the feds will allow Alaska to control more of its own resources. It will happen someday — though it may take an Alaskan in the White House to do it.

I think the idea of an Alaska more beholden to the federal government is distasteful to Sarah Palin. It was distasteful to another western conservative, who once said:

This is the issue of this election: Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.

In her press conference on the stimulus, Gov. Palin quoted Thomas Jefferson on the dangers of an all-powerful central government:

When all government domestic and foreign in little as in great things, shall be drawn to Washington as a center of all power it will render powerless the checks of one branch of government on another, and it will become as venal and oppressive as the government from which we separated.

So, when it comes to the stimulus package, Palin’s concerns for Alaska are “sustainability” and “strings.” She refuses to grow government or to accept money that comes with strings attached that will give “a far-distant capital” more control over Alaskans.

That has always been her reasoning. She was skeptical of taking the funds, so she opened the issue to public debate.

“We provided the public with the opportunity to weigh in and for them to understand the complicated and evolving federal requirements in this package,” Governor Palin said. “My concern remains that we must acknowledge these are one-time, temporary funds…”

Basically she told lawmakers and the public, “Prove to me that there are no unsustainable ‘strings’ attached to this stimulus. Show me that you understand that this is one-time temporary funding.”

She made them accountable for their desire to take the stimulus money. She wanted them to prove that they can handle the “strings” that might be attached and that they won’t grow government. Managing the public’s expectations when the temporary funding runs out has been a key concern. Do they realize that only the first taste is free?

She drilled this message in, and she got a key concession from the legislators:

The legislature agreed with the Governor that these federal funds should be used to generate new private sector jobs and not be used to create new services or programs. HB199 includes intent language to that effect: “The state will not be granting additional funds to continue the programs after the federal aid is exhausted.”

That was key. No long term growth in government.

She was concerned about “strings,” and the two areas where “strings” might be attached were education funding (if the temporary stimulus funds were viewed as long term unfunded mandates) and the weatherization/energy efficiency funding.

As regards education:

Education funding is one of the largest components of the economic stimulus package, and legislators appear to have assured themselves that Alaska schools will use the one-time funds wisely. Alaska’s 53 school districts can access about $171 million in stimulus funds. HB199 states, “School districts (should) focus on short-term investment with long-term gains for student and teacher performance.”

“I have heard from the education community and parents that these funds can be invested in support of improved student achievement while not incurring ongoing expenses,” said Larry LeDoux, commissioner of the Department of Education and Early Development. “Teacher training and technology upgrades are just some examples of how these funds can be invested wisely without creating unrealistic expectations when they are no longer available in 24 months.”

I personally don’t believe for a second that the funds will accomplish much of anything. They never do. (I’m biased in my thinking. I attended a little Catholic elementary school that never had funding for the fancy new stuff that the public schools had. Our teachers weren’t paid as much. Our school books were older. Our playground consisted of a broken slide, three swings and a parking lot. But despite all of that, we received a much better education than the public school kids — with their fancy gym equipment, high paid edu-crats, and brand new textbooks filled with the latest PC nonsense.) Stimulus spending on education will go towards more edu-crats, and at the end of day, teachers will still be paid crap, schools will still be failing, and at least a third of their students will still be below average. But at least Palin got them to acknowledge that this is a one-time funding deal.

There were still “strings” attached to the weatherization/energy efficiency funding. She rejected $28.6 million for State Energy Program funds because they were tied to adopting a “federally mandated, universal energy code.” It was a principled thing to do, and it was consistent with her reasoning. It wasn’t “in Alaskans’ common or individual interests” because “one size does not fit all” and local governments understand their needs better than “a far-distant capital.”

She tried to get the lawmakers to use the stimulus money to replace general fund dollars in order to save more for Alaska in the event of another rainy day. She was successful in part:

In evaluating use of federal stimulus funds, the governor placed a priority on protecting the state’s savings accounts so they can be a fiscal stabilizer over several years of revenue shortfalls. To keep the state from using more of its savings, Governor Palin asked the legislature to use federal money to replace state general funds in the FY2009 and FY2010 budgets. More than $130 million of federal economic stimulus funds will be used to replace state general funds in the operating budget, specifically for Medicaid reimbursement and child support enforcement.

The governor also proposed redirecting an additional $120 million in stimulus dollars, where appropriate, in order to reduce the draw on the state’s savings accounts. However, the legislature did not accept those recommendations. “The governor is committed to extending the life of our savings during this time of low oil prices, and believes we could have done more with stimulus dollars to help with that by replacing state dollars with federal funds,” said Karen Rehfeld, director of the Office of Management and Budget.

She got them to save $130 million, but they refused to save an additional $120 million. And for that you can blame Senate President Gary Stevens (RINO-Kodiak), who basically mimicked Obama’s words on the spendulus. It’s a spending bill! Let’s spend!

“It seems to me that is not the point of the stimulus. The point of the stimulus is new jobs and to encourage the economy and it is not to replace monies you were going to spend anyway,” said Stevens, the president of the Senate.

When Alaska’s savings run out, remember that Gary was all for spending every last penny, and please be sure to ask him how many new jobs were created by those teacher “training” sessions.

The bottom line here is that the legislature and the public demanded the loot. They have plenty of votes to overturn Palin’s veto. They voted almost unanimously to take every last dime of the stimulus.

As a pragmatic leader, she got the concessions she needed. No strings. No unsustainable long-term growth of government.

She made the best of the hand she was dealt.

It seems as if the stimulus was designed to make it nearly impossible for a governor to reject it. The fact that one state’s money can be picked up by another state is a foil to anyone who wants to refuse to be a part of this spending disaster. No one can say, “I don’t want the money. Save it.” It won’t be saved; it will just go to another state. So then the argument becomes, “Why should California get our money? Let’s take all that we can. It’s our future too. If they’re spending our future away, we might as well grab as much as we can.” In this way, we’ve all been made accomplices to the theft of our children.

Palin sees this generational theft. Debt and sovereignty are the crux of her concerns about what this stimulus will do to our nation:

“My concern remains that we must acknowledge these are one-time, temporary funds, that the federal government is deeply in debt, and that we must borrow money from other countries to fund much of government.”

Her concerns are rooted in the conservative philosophy that she has espoused throughout her political career.

This is from her inaugural address as governor:

“I will defend our values. I’ll show fiscal restraint to not burden our children with debt and deficit. I’ll support competition and free enterprise. I’ll insist on ethics in government. I will respect you. I will put Alaska first…. Take responsibility for your family and for your futures. Don’t think you need government to take care of all needs and to make decisions for you. More government isn’t the answer because you have the ability, because you are Alaskans and you live in a land which God, with incredible benevolence, decided to overwhelmingly bless.”

This is from her 2007 State of the State:

“First, my philosophy: More government is not the answer. But we all know government’s proper role is to help change the conditions to improve lives and economically stimulate communities. Government can’t make you happy, it can’t make you healthy, it can’t make you a productive member of society. Government’s role is to provide the tools…. The foundation of our administrative decisions rest upon what I believe Alaskans want – it’s what we OWE future generations – that’s “fiscal prudence” in the use of public resources – saving for our future; and not burdening Alaskans with new taxes to support any “over growth” of government.”

This is from her 2008 State of the State:

“Ronald Reagan warned, ‘Government always finds a need for whatever money it gets.’ I agree and that’s why we must save our surplus.

She hasn’t changed. Her message hasn’t changed.

This stimulus isn’t her doing. This insane growth in our national debt — a growth greater than at any time since the founding of our nation — is the sole responsibility of one man. This is his doing, not Gov. Palin’s. She did everything in her power to warn us about him. She did everything she could to make sure that he would not be in a position to commandeer more federal control or spend our future away or hand over our nation’s financial sovereignty to foreign countries.

She told us that a day might come when we would look back with bitter nostalgia at all that we lost:

“It was Ronald Reagan who said that freedom is always just one generation away from extinction. We don’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream; we have to fight for it and protect it, and then hand it to them so that they shall do the same, or we’re going to find ourselves spending our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children about a time in America, back in the day, when men and women were free.”

Remember those words. There is no such thing as free money. We’ve bankrupted our children and our children’s children. We have our “Turkish Delight” now, but only the first taste is free.

You might be wondering why those lines from Robert Browning’s poem keep running through my mind?

Dust and ashes, dead and done with, Venice spent what Venice earned.
The soul, doubtless, is immortal — where a soul can be discerned.

America spent what America earned. The soul is immortal, but do we have a soul anymore? Is our country still what the founders envisioned?

I don’t know the answer.

Here’s what the poet tells us:

As for Venice and her people, merely born to bloom and drop,
Here on earth they bore their fruitage, mirth and folly were the crop:
What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?

(Singer-songwriter Kris Delmhorst wrote a wonderful song based on Browning’s poem. You can listen to it here.)

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