A very seasoned and shrewd retired politician said the other day, "sometimes a money spill can be worse than an oil spill," meaning we should be careful how our current leaders handle an influx of federal infrastructure funds. We should watch how they use our State's investment bank and how they look to our Permanent Fund as a means to develop roads to resources, mines, and other industrial development that can be extremely harmful to communities, tribes and the fish and wildlife and land and water they depend on.
A case in point is Ambler Road. The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) has been called "The Governor's Slush Fund." It is poorly insulated against political winds, and the board of directors serves at the pleasure of the Gov. AIDEA has plowed ahead with financing for the highly controversial road to a proposed mining district in the heart of the country between the Kobuk and Ambler rivers. One major criticism of AIDEA is secrecy. Many of the board's decisions are conducted in executive sessions and run counter to the expressed will of those Alaskans who provide testimony to the board.
There are also recent issues with AIDEA keeping tribes out of meetings and yesterday AIDEA had a board meeting in which they proposed spending another $15 million next summer on the Ambler Road proposal. AIDEA is unilaterally moving forward with approving this additional $15 million toward the Ambler Road – all outside of the legislative budget process. AIDEA has been getting away with shifting money around in legally dubious ways to date. They haven't been able to get their money through the capital budget process, so now they are going big with this new expenditure and making those decisions outside the legislature's purview.
To add insult to injury, Governor Dunleavy's Department of Transportation (DOT) proposes a "man camp" for out of town and out-of-state workers right in the middle of the community of Bettles. The man camp would take over the community's picnic pavilion area in Bettles. Bettles has been against the Ambler Road from day one.
One Bettles resident penned a compelling message regarding the man camp proposal:
"The baseball field in our tiny village of 24 people is the town gathering place. It is an open space where children play, by which we walk every day on the way to the ranger station or the airstrip. We have our Fourth of July festivities there - silly dress-up races, potato sack races, keep the egg on the spoon. If you've come to Bettles on your way to Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve for a backcountry trip, you've probably set up your tent and camped in this ballfield. You've probably enjoyed cooking a meal in the little pavilion there.
The Alaska Dept. of Transportation has proposed leasing our community ballfield in Bettles for the next 10 years as a man camp in support of the Ambler Access Project. Please help out our community by writing [email protected] and referencing ADA-72673 to voice your opposition to the development of a man camp in our town gathering place. Comment deadline is 4:30 pm on 1/31.
If this camp and all that comes along with it is permitted to take root, the heart of our town will belong to someone else - industry and its uncaring, itinerant strangers. The U.S. Bureau of Justice performed a study in 2019 that found that violent victimization increased by 70% in rural communities wherein a man camp was erected. That statistic is widely believed to underrepresent the issue, given how many offenses go unreported. Further, it is buffered by the presence in those communities of agencies and entities charged with the control and prevention of violence, whereas here in Bettles no such law enforcement exists.
Whoever occupies the camp over the next decade will leave one day, and behind them, their detritus and whatever their impacts. If they do nothing violent, if they victimize no person bodily, they will be an exceptional deviation from a statistic, but they will nonetheless have done a great deal to victimize a community.
If you can, please take a moment to email [email protected] and voice your opposition to this proposal."
If the Ambler Road project is any indication, those large industrial concerns, often headquartered in other countries, have a powerful partner in our state government agencies. Future allocations of federal infrastructure money should be under the control of the arm of government directly accountable to local voters - the allocating body - the State Legislature. That way the citizens of the State will have a more significant say in how the money is spent.
HB 177 is a good start. Under HB 177, informally called the "Balance of Powers Act," a Governor would be prohibited from unilaterally spending large federal appropriations should it flow into the State when the legislature is not in session. As Alaska prepares to receive a slug of federal infrastructure funds, we must remedy this statute to uphold the Alaska Constitution and ensure that full appropriation power resides where it should, with the elected representatives of the people, the Alaska state legislature.
The Alaska Center
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