WASHINGTON — Alaskans may have lost their title as the No. 1 per capita recipients of earmarks, but it doesn't mean the federal spigot has run dry for the state that made the so-called "bridge to nowhere" a buzzword for wasteful spending.
There's no question the state has seen a decline -- Alaska's congressional delegation landed $227 million in earmarks in 2009, compared to $87 million in 2010, according to a new report from the nonpartisan budget watchdogs at Taxpayers for Common Sense.
But Alaska's earmarks are just a drop in the bucket in terms of the annual federal money that comes to the state, said economist Scott Goldsmith of the University of Alaska's Institute of Social and Economic Research. There's more than $9 billion annually in federal spending, which includes government jobs, the military, and Social Security and other such programs.
Although they're valuable to the entities or communities seeking them, earmarks are more significant as "an indicator of the political winds in Washington, D.C.," Goldsmith said.
"In the big picture, it's not going to mean the difference in the economy growing or going into the tank," he said of Alaska's declining earmark stature.
Overall, the amount of money earmarked by Congress in the 2010 budget didn't change much from 2009: It continues to hover around $15 billion each year despite pledges by both Congress and the White House to rein in earmarked spending.
But Alaska's per capita share of earmark money dropped from No. 1 to No. 6. It was about $331 for every person in the state, said Steve Ellis, a spokesman for Taxpayers for Common Sense. Now, it's about $139 per person.
Taxpayers for Common Sense attributes the decline directly to the departure of longtime Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, a senior member of the Senate Appropriations panel until his ouster in 2008 by Democratic Sen. Mark Begich, was skilled at steering federal spending to Alaska.
"You can definitely see that there is a power outage, so to speak," Ellis said. His organization maintains that the wild swings in spending merely demonstrate an irrational system based on political muscle rather than merit.
"It's not a meritocracy," Ellis said, "unless you believe that Alaska is less than half as important as it was last year."
Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski took Stevens' spot on the Senate Appropriations Committee, but as a relatively junior member of that panel, isn't the prolific earmarker Stevens was -- and may never be because of a changing approach to earmarking.
As the chairman of appropriations committee, Stevens "was clearly in a position to make many things come our way and we recognize that," Murkowski told reporters this week.
"But it's not just with the loss of Sen. Stevens," she said. "It is a very dramatically different environment in Washington D.C. when it comes to earmarks specifically. I will argue that at the federal level, we must do more to contain our spending. We've got to work to reduce that pie. But once that pie is determined, I'm going to do my darnedest to make sure that Alaska gets its fair share of that pie."
Republican Rep. Don Young, himself a prolific earmarker, once bragged he stuffed a transportation bill "like a turkey." And Begich said he thinks the analysis by Taxpayers for Common Sense is low -- his office estimates the state received nearly twice the amount of earmarked money last year that the watchdog organization does.
Regardless, Begich said he's approaching earmarks and federal spending from a different perspective, one that goes "beyond the personality of who's in office." Instead, Begich said, he's used his spot on the Senate Armed Services Committee to advocate turning some earmarks into regular budget items.
For example, Begich said that $100 million for missile defense upgrades at Fort Greeley is now in the baseline Defense Department budget, not added on as earmarked spending each year. The same for a project at Eielson Air Force Base, Begich said.
"It's a different approach than grabbing a few bucks and throwing it on the table," Begich said. "Earmarks really aren't sustainable. Those are moments in time."
And there's little indication that earmarks have much value as a measure of effectiveness or congressional leadership, said Gary Jacobson, a professor of political science at the University of California San Diego.
"Earmarking is more symbolic than meaningful," Jacobson said. "The proportion of federal spending that goes to earmarked projects is really quite small. People can grasp the bridge to nowhere, but have difficulty understand inefficiencies in, say, the Social Security system."