Alaska Won't 'Break The Bank' on Security Spending
By Bill McAllister, Special to Stateline
Like other states, Alaska scrambled in the wake of the terrorist attacks to assess risk and heighten security around critical infrastructure. But despite recommendations by the governor for broad spending on new security measures, Alaskas looming budget deficit kept lawmakers from approving all but a fraction of funds targeted to ongoing homeland security projects.
There has been an arm's-length relationship between Alaska and the rest of the United States. When Alaskans travel elsewhere in the country, they say they're going "Outside." And when tourists come here, some of them amuse local merchants by asking if they accept "American money."
The post-9/11 surge in patriotism has narrowed that gap.
Like other states, Alaska scrambled in the wake of the terrorist attacks to assess risk and heighten security around critical infrastructure. But despite recommendations by the governor for broad spending on new security measures, Alaska's looming budget deficit kept lawmakers from approving all but a fraction of funds targeted to ongoing homeland security projects.
Three weeks after the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, someone shot a hole in the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Alaska's economic centerpiece suddenly appeared vulnerable. An unrelated tip from federal officials reportedly escalated the threat level.
The state set up a checkpoint on the remote Dalton Highway to monitor traffic near the northern half of the 800-mile pipeline, which funnels one-sixth of America's domestic oil production to the terminal at Valdez, on Prince William Sound. Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. and the U.S. Coast Guard simultaneously increased terminal security.
The anthrax scare also spread to Alaska, with 120 or more false alarms concerning unidentified powder or suspicious mail, said Jay Livey, state commissioner of health and social services.
Gov. Tony Knowles convened a "terrorism disaster policy cabinet" and presented its recommendations in legislation carrying a $100 million price tag.
"Our geographical isolation from the 'lower 48' does not guarantee that ... potential targets will have immunity from attack," according to the group's November report. "[A]s our nation improves its homeland security and targets become more difficult to attack, terrorists could well look to targets that are less protected."
But as the months went by, the sense of alarm seemed to ebb.
And with the state facing a $1 billion deficit in two years, based upon the projected depletion of budget reserves, lawmakers were in a penny-pinching mood.
"We weren't going to break the bank when we didn't know how risky it was for Alaska," one government official commented.
Lacking a funding commitment from the Legislature, the state shut down its Dalton Highway checkpoint in April.
And when the legislative session adjourned a month later, less than $2 million of state general funds -- out of the governor's request for $46 million -- was appropriated for ongoing homeland security purposes. The governor's failed initiatives included more security for telecommunications and decontamination supplies for people exposed to chemical or biological attacks.
Lawmakers did agreed to cover $42 million in one-time, already incurred expenses related to 9/11, and to pass on $49 million in federal funds for various programs.
Among the items left out: new capitol security measures. At many state capitols, there is now conspicuous security, such as hand searches of briefcases and purses in Sacramento, California. In Juneau, though, the only visible increase in security was to lock all doors except the main entrance.
"We probably have erred on the side of easy access," said Kim Elton, Juneau's state senator and a member of the Legislative Council, which is in charge of the physical plant. But some security measures were implemented that can't be discussed publicly, Elton said.
The pipeline is considered the state's number one asset -- not only because of its national importance, but also because oil revenue accounts for 80 percent of state general fund spending and is the source of the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend program, which will pay out about $1,550 this fall to every state resident.
There is both public and private security for the pipeline. But the structure crosses hundreds of miles of unpopulated, difficult-to-traverse terrain.
"That pipeline is a very difficult thing to defend," said Drew Dix, the state's homeland security coordinator. "You can't guarantee anything. The terrorist has the advantage."
But Alaska officials say they entered the post-9/11 world with some advantages.
The state's government is unusually centralized, with a chief executive that has as much power as any governor in the nation. In addition, on 9/11 the state already was bringing a 24-hour emergency response center into operation.
A new public health laboratory was able to provide quick analyses of suspected anthrax samples, averting a potential delay of weeks from using an out-of-state facility, said Livey, the health commissioner. That kept public concern to a minimum, he said.
Also, the state's history of disasters, from the 1964 Good Friday earthquake to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill to numerous fires and floods, has created "integrated and effective emergency management and inter-agency procedures at all levels," according to the governor's terrorism cabinet report.
Ironically, this level of preparedness worked against Gov. Knowles' proposed Office of Homeland Security.
Members of the Republican legislative majority said the lame duck Democratic governor was proposing an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and trying to recycle previous public safety proposals, such as increased staffing levels for state troopers, by using 9/11 as an excuse.
Major General Phillip Oates, the commissioner of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs (DMVA) and commanding officer of the Alaska National Guard, responded that lawmakers were "willing to take much more risk than I feel acceptable."
The Knowles administration added homeland security coordination to Oates' responsibilities this summer, working around the legislature's refusal to fund a separate office.
Legislative balking also stymied the state-run Alaska Marine Highway System's proposals to increase security aboard ferries, which are a critical transportation link, particularly in coastal communities that aren't connected to the road system. But with the lack of new legislative funding, the department scrapped tentative plans to search vehicles and baggage and to add on-board security personnel.
Meanwhile, federal funds are allowing some state agencies to move ahead with homeland security measures, particularly for airport security.
The Department of Health and Social Services has a $6.5 million federal grant for training a few dozen new and existing personnel to recognize a wider range of disease outbreaks and "increase our ability to scan the horizon out there," Livey said. "The interesting thing with bioterrorism is you don't know when you're under attack."
Even if new state funding is scarce, there's a different attitude in the Knowles administration.
"Our focus has shifted to, when people tell us about something strange, we're more motivated to check it out," said Public Safety Commissioner Del Smith. "I'm concerned that 9/11 may be an opportunity for somebody to strike another blow, on the anniversary of it. We're very wary. I don't think we can assume they don't know where Alaska is."