Gov. Jay Hammond calls it "a blessing which could be a disaster in disguise." Others see it as a politician's pipe dream. Anchorage Times publisher Robert B. Atwood, leader of the Alaska boomers, looks upon it as a new opportunity to invest in Alaska.
"It" is an unparalleled bonanza in state government income, caused almost entirely by the world energy crisis and the massive increases in oil prices decreed by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
At the beginning of the year, Alaska, like most other states, was struggling to keep its budget in balance. Now, because of higher oil royalties and an increase in the wellhead price that the state forced upon the producing companies when it threatened to take its royalty income in petroleum, the treasury in Juneau is awash in oil money.
By the most conservative estimates, Alaska will wind up the fiscal year next July with a $600 million surplus. More likely, the figure will be at least $1 billion. Within a decade, Alaska will take in $6 billion a year in oil revenues, which are then expected to decline rapidly as the Prudhoe Bay wells give out.
"When there's an energy crisis in the rest of the United States, there's a big bonanza in Alaska," observes Tom Gibboney, editor of the Homer News.
And so it would seem. But there are large clouds to the silver lining in this biggest and least settled of American states, where boom-and-bust has been the economic order of the day ever since the Russians launched the Alaskan fur trade in the 18th century.
Gold, fishing and military spending have all followed suit, spinning along in boom-and-bust cycles. Perhaps because of historic consciousness or because the state is now in an economic slump between the end of oil pipeline construction and the long-delayed beginning of work on a natural gas pipeline, Alaskans are acutely aware that their oil income can fade as quickly as it came.
"People in Alaska know that the oil will run out," says Brian Rogers, a 29-year-old member of the state House of Representatives from Fairbanks. "When we first got the $900 million [from the oil development at Prudhoe Bay], we thought it would last forever. Now we know it won't."
Alaska received a one-time$900 million bonus payment from the oil companies in 1970 for development of the Prudhoe Bay field. Most of the money was absorbed in expansion of state government, which has grown by 900 percent in a decade.
State spending has increased from little more than $1 million to $1 billion in the past 10 years, while population climbed by 40 percent (to 400,000) and prices 80 percent. While it is generally accepted that government services are necessarily costly in Alaska because of the states' thin population distribution and immense size, government growth has nonetheless exceeded all forecasts.
The state's per capita outlay for services is 3 1/2 times as great as the average state's and twice that of Wyoming, the state Alaska most resembles in population density.
Legislative concern that the state would race through its oil revenue and have nothing to show for it but a huge bureaucracy led to creation of the Permanent Fund, a cache that now receives an automatic 25 percent of wellhead income.
Next year, the legislature is expected to debate an increase in the set-aside percentage, as well as the merits of competing proposals for use of fund earnings and the expected huge surplus in the operating budget.
In Alaska, a state where things are rarely what they seem, many who call themselves "conservative" want to spend the money -- the Permanent Fund's principal and rapidly climbing interest, and the coming surplus in the operating budget -- as quickly as possible, while some others, who in the normal run of things call themselves "liberal," would save whatever possible for Alaska's uncertain future.
Basically, the self-styled boomers, or conservatives, want to pour the money into improvement of Alaska's backward road system and construct new docks and harbors for an expanding fishing industry. Some would also like to promote tourism and the development of resorts that would go with it.
"Money melts more quickly than ice," says champion boomer Atwood. "We would spend the money on Alaska and in Alaska." The business community, for which Atwood often speaks, also is generally supportive of proposals to abolish the state's income tax, a step that would cost Alaska $150 million in revenue and still leave most of the oil surplus to finance basic services and development.
The other side, "the liberals," those who want to put some of the money away, are led by young Democratic state House members like Rogers and Hugh Malone of Kenai. Their favorite mechanism is the state's Permanent Fund.
"I think we should save as much as we can and return the rest of it to the people" says Malone.
Hammond, with some support from the legislature, is trying to spread around that portion of oil revenue not reserved for the Permanent Fund through a state income tax credit that would increase with each year's residence in Alaska.
The governor, a moderate Republican, insists that such a tax credit would be far fairer to the elderly, to the young and the poor and to native Alaskans than a simple repeal of the income tax. The oil income, he says, should be shared equally by every Alaskan instead of returned to citizens in a way that would enrich the state's wealthy businessmen -- including Atwood and Hammond. For the poorest Alaskans, the governor's tax credit plan could mean a refund each year of several thousand dollars -- in effect, a negative income tax.
On the surface, the cards would appear to be stacked against Hammond's plan in the 1980 legislature, where it will face presumably heavy opposition from business lobbyists. But Hammond has been appealing effectively to Alaskan jingoism, of which there is no short supply.
"Do we really want to see the fellow who made $90,000 in pipeline construction on the [North] Slope and drew Alaska unemployment in Hawaii leave no tax money in his wake for the privilege of coming up here and depriving some Alaskan of a job?" Hammond asked a reporter rhetorically.
He will try to cast the issue in these terms when the legislature assembles in Juneau next January.
A scholarly analysis by Alaska-born and Oxford-trained economist James Rhode, a legislative aide, suggests that the best way to dispose of the surplus income would be in direct payments to residents. Except for housing, Rhode contends, the inflationary impact would be small, since most of the goods sold here are produced outside, and the state represents but a small percentage of their total market.
Direct payments would be attractive right now to many Alaskans, who are suffering through one of the state's periodic recessions. The population of Anchorage, where living costs are among the highest in the nation, dropped by an estimated 20,000 between 1977 and 1978 to 184,000. Bank deposits are nearly static. Unemployment, while down from last year's level, still crowds 11 percent statewide and is much higher in some areas. Apartment vacancies abound in Fairbanks and Anchorage, and houses are selling well below their asking prices. A number of restaurants are in financial trouble.
The Alaska slump is complicated by start-up delays for the 4,800-mile natural gas pipeline (it includes a 731-mile Alaskan section) that is to deliver natural gas through Canada to the United States. The $14 billion project has run into many obstacles, and a ground-breaking date is at least a year away.
Other Alaska ventures also have failed to deliver on their promise. While farms here produce oversized cabbages and strawberries and plenty of summer vegetables for local use, commercial export of barley and wheat has yet to prove competitive. One study estimates that $10 is spent in Alaska on agriculture research for every $1 spent on actual planting and harvesting.
Prospects for an expanded timber industry, except in southeastern Alaska, are even more discouraging because of the unusually long maturation periods of most commercial trees native to the state. So for mineral development, much of Alaska's subterranean wealth is locked up in federally protected wilderness land.
The bright spot of the Alaska economy, aside from oil, is the fishing industry, which has just ended a record salmon season and is looking toward a record, $100 million year in king crab. New docks have been built at Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians, scene of a historic Japanese air raid in World War II.
The establishment of the 200-mile limit also has created opportunities for an Alaskan bottom-fishing industry, a pet Hammond project, but one that still seems far in the future.
Overall, however, the Alaskan economic outlook is bleak. Recently, in a study commissioned by the Oil and Gas Association, Robert R. Richards of Alaska Pacific Bank, one of the state's best-known economists, concluded that "the state of Alaska faces an impending fiscal crisis."
Richards said that in the absence of either successful economic diversification or substantial reduction in government growth, Alaska is headed for bankruptcy. Oil revenues, he warned, while currently accounting for 70 percent of state income, cannot be depended on to bankroll state services much beyond another decade.
Rhode, who reached similar conclusions, said it will not be easy to curb government growth in a state with high unemployment and 40 percent of its work-force on some public payroll. The oil industry, while the source of enormous wealth, is capital-intensive; it has not created a significant number of permanent jobs. The Alaskan economy, as now drawn, is dangerously dependent on the continued growth of government spending.
At Hugh Malone's direction, Rhode prepared four models of government growth, all but one of which show Alaska winding up with a deficit in little more than a decade. His "realistic" model, premised on a 15 percent annual government growth rate and diversion of 30 percent of oil revenues into the Permanent Fund, foresees a decline in the fortunes of Alaskan government from a peak budget surplus of $3.2 billion in 1989 to a deficit of $663 million in 1994.
But it's going to be a big bonanza while it lasts.