The Big Easy vs. the Last Frontier

How America's piggiest state can help get New Orleans back on its feet


"You know, in this country, we have a great system that says, when something like this happens to one part of the country, the rest of the country is going to come together and help," Mike Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told Chris Matthews in an appearance on MSNBC's Hardball this week.

How true, Mr. Brown! In the spirit of FEMA, I'd like to do what political commentators do best—volunteer some of my countrymen to make the necessary sacrifices. We can start with a little Cajun-style looting of a part of the country that is richer than a thousand WalMarts and takes more pork than an andouille gumbo. I'm referring of course to the great state of Alaska, a place of hearty optimism that just received a colossal, historic dose of federal largesse, and will certainly be willing to give it up to help folks in the Mississippi basin rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.

The situation is simple. There is no more money in the federal budget to rebuild Louisiana and Mississippi. The federal government is running a $413-billion annual deficit, and the national debt is heading north of $8 trillion. In these circumstances, House Speaker Dennis Hastert's (R-Ill.) hastily retracted claim that rebuilding New Orleans doesn't "make sense" sounds less like hardheaded realism than political necessity. The feds don't have the money to put up a toolshed, let alone a "fantastic Gulf Coast."

But hold on a minute. Just this month, the federal government managed to find $286.4 billion for a highway bill that provides countless Washington D.C. giveaways to states that don't need the help. Among the celebrated goodies: a dust control project for Arkansas roads and a warehouse on the Erie Canal.

Nobody, however, made out on the highway bill quite like the state of Alaska and its ravenous political class. Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, bragged to his constituents that the transportation bill (which Young loves so much he named it after his wife) was "stuffed like a turkey" with handouts for his state, and he was not exaggerating. The $721 million in tundra spending includes: a $2 23 million "bridge to "nowhere," connecting the 8,900-person town of Ketchikan to an airport on Gravina Island, whose population is 50; a $200 million bridge connecting Anchorage to a rural port so insignificant even the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce tried to block the project; and $15 million in seed money for a 68-mile, $284 million access road to Juneau. (This last one is opposed by not only the Environmental Protection Agency but a majority of the area's residents.)

Certainly all this spending would not cover the $25 billion to $30 billion that Katrina-related rebuilding is expected to cost. But let's put some things into perspective. While Alaska was helping itself to three-quarters of a billion of your tax dollars, the Army Corps of Engineers was seeking $105 million for hurricane and flood control programs in New Orleans. Funding for these programs had been lowballed through both the Clinton and Bush administrations, and the final grant to the Corps came to $42 million.

Of course, Alaska and the Mississippi Delta share another important bond. Both are notoriously climate-troubled regions that depend on generous federal support to keep people living there. This has stopped neither residents of the Big Easy from developing a boisterous and independent spirit of year-round celebration nor Alaskans from viewing themselves as rugged individualists who need nobody's help. That the number of people who will benefit from the pork barrel projects of Young and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) may actually be smaller than the number who have died as a result of Hurricane Katrina is a special lagniappe.

As more Americans notice the disparity in federal welfare, Alaskans have begun to get defensive, bellyaching that Louisiana has taken a lot of federal money too.

In this, they've got sterling leadership from Rep. Young himself, who dismisses all critics by, well, passing the bong. This July, Young defended the Ketchikan project to AP by saying, "These people keep saying it's nowhere, they're just smoking pot." This expanded on Young's 2001 criticism of an insufficiently stuffed Senate aviation bill, wherein the congressman accused people who expected the bill to be effective of "smoking pot." On the other hand, when there was some question about funds for Alaska oil drilling in 2000, Young told a newspaper, "If you think billions of barrels of oil will stay in the ground, you're smoking pot."

It's tempting to imagine the powerful head of the Transportation Committee is just enjoying a flashback to his state's all-too-brief experiment with marijuana decriminalization, and even a relentless wake-and-baker wouldn't believe the funding that went to Alaska will be enough to rebuild the Mississippi Delta (though it could have prevented much of the tragedy we're seeing now). But we've got to start rebuilding somewhere, and there's no better place to find the money than in the highway bill. So let's all pitch in for our fellow Americans down on the delta. Alaskans, you go first.