Yukonomist visits the big city

Yukoners like to treat Skagway like it's in their own backyard. But while Alaska looks a lot the same, it is different in many ways from the Yukon. 

Yukoners like to treat Skagway like it’s in their own backyard. But while Alaska looks a lot the same, it is different in many ways from the Yukon. An old friend once remarked, after a weekend in Skagway, that “it’s like a foreign country down there.”

I felt the same, but even more so, after spending the weekend in Anchorage as a soccer dad. The city is over 10 times more populous than Whitehorse, and everything seems bigger, louder and more aggressive.

The Kincaid Park soccer complex had seven quality fields and a small stadium with state-of-the-art artificial turf, sponsored by a big oil company. The soccer teams were tough competitors, with strong coaching supported by the state’s soccer development program that is connected to the national training organization.

I visited the Anchorage Museum, an impressive facility which combines modern art, Alaskan history, First Alaskan culture and a children’s science zone. A major donor is the Rasmusson Foundation, a non-governmental entity which is unlike anything in the Yukon. It has an endowment of around US$650 million, primarily from the legacy of the old Rasmusson Alaskan banking empire, and gave US$28 million to various worthy causes in 2015. An Alaskan told me about its generous but tough-minded approach, where an organization starts with small grants until it proves a track record of impact and can qualify for larger grants from the foundation.

Whitehorse is much more diverse culturally than when I was a kid, but Anchorage goes even farther. Slate reported this week that Anchorage has one of the country’s strongest education programs for refugees. The school district serves children who speak over 100 languages, and 6,000 out of the 48,000 students qualify for English-language learner services.

This explains why my son’s opponents were communicating in Arabic, Spanish and an African language I couldn’t identify on the pitch.

The beer scene is also wonderfully diverse in Anchorage. I picked up some Tundra Wookie to bring home for friends, and enjoyed quality brews from Kenai and Fairbanks.

The soccer fields are on the site of a refurbished Cold War surface-to-air missile base, a reminder of Anchorage’s position as a serious military base keeping an eye on the Russians and Chinese. The lost-and-found was in an old bunker. Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage hosts more than 5,000 personnel. Other than the cadets and Rangers, the Canadian military is nearly invisible in Whitehorse and one seldom sees serving personnel in uniform.

Anchorage’s challenges are also bigger. Alaskans would laugh at Riverdale Rush Minute. They actually have real traffic in Anchorage, as expected in a city of 300,000 people.

Anchorage also has its edgy side. We saw a seven-car take-down near Fifth Avenue and some of the team saw police with drawn weapons just like on TV. In addition, Anchorage’s homelessness problem looks as severe as it has ever been.

Their politics are also bigger and louder, even with Sarah Palin safely gone from the Governor’s mansion. Alaska’s political spectrum spans the chasm between Subarus covered in “Feel the Bern” stickers to pro-Trump pickups with “Make America Great Again” added in duct tape.

Alaska also has some bigger political problems that we do. The cut to our transfer payment this year resulted, in the end, in it merely rising less fast than hoped. Alaska faces a giant deficit because of the collapse in oil prices, and may have to institute an income tax or cut the annual dividend paid to every Alaskan.

When we were in Alaska, Governor Bill Walker was airing the dirty laundry in public in a way I’ve never seen here. I’m sure every premier since we got self-government in 1979 has said a few choice words about his or her legislative colleagues privately. But Governor Walker held a press conference and, according to the Alaska Dispatch News, accused lawmakers of shirking their responsibilities. The governor was incensed that legislators avoided tough decisions on the deficit, by refusing to undertake unpopular cuts. The consequence is that fully half of the money left in the state’s primary savings account would be used up in just one year, leaving the state facing the same structural deficit a year from now.

It’s like getting a home equity line for half the equity in your house, just to finance day-to-day spending.

Alaska’s politicians are deeply divided between those who want to cut subsidies to oil companies, and those who prefer to cut government services and the dividend to regular folks. Raising taxes is anathema to almost all of them.

“Do we have to go broke before we fix Alaska? I guess that’s my question to the legislature,” said the governor tartly. “It’s time we stopped talking about the upcoming election or the re-election, and start making decisions about what’s best for Alaska now.”

This comes as the legislature is in a special session the governor convened in Juneau after, according to ADN, “lawmakers failed to pass a budget or any of his deficit-reduction measures in a regular session that dragged on for its constitutional limit of 121 days.”

It will be fascinating to see how Alaskans come together (or not) to solve their economic problems. And I’m looking forward to our next family trip to the 49th state. For Yukoners looking for a vacation somewhere a bit different, but not wanting to miss the charms of our brief northern summer, I highly recommend an Alaskan road trip.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He won last year’s Ma Murray award for best columnist. You can follow him on Channel 9’s “Yukonomist” show.

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