The Man for the Job

When I was about 20 years old, I was a fishing guide on the Nushagak River.  I worked for Wood River Lodge about an hours float plane ride away.  We’d run 2 or 3 flat bottom skiffs with outboard jet motors down the Agoulawok River, across Lake Aleknagik, down the Wood River, into Bristol Bay, then across the tide flat by Dillingham and up the Nushagak River.  I set up a camp and lived there during the first 2 or 3 weeks of July.  Guests would be flown over in float planes, and myself and the pilot or a guide from the lodge would take them fishing from boats or on the beach at the camp for the king salmon migrating up the river to spawn. The land our camp was on was owned by Choggiung, the local village corporation.  The lodge leased the land from them each year.   In my second year on the river, Choggiung hired two people to camp on the river to monitor the lands, and their camp was right below me – a walk down the beach.  The two Chog representatives there were Bryce Edgmon and Dugan Nielsen.   We became fast friends.  I was eager to learn how to smoke fish, and they were happy to teach me.  I found an old 55 gallon barrel, and they showed me how to make a smoker from it and we made some good fish when the king salmon showed up. Like many chance encounters in Alaska, I would see these people again, though not in Dillingham or Bristol Bay.   I saw Dugan once in an airport or waiting for a plane somewhere – I can’t quite remember now- maybe in Anchorage, Kodiak or on the Alaska Peninsula somewhere.  We talked for hours. Bryce I saw when I moved to Juneau and he came to town to work for his state legislative representative.  He’s been coming here now for close to 20 years, and we still talk, albeit mostly be email now.  He’s now one of the rational voices at the legislature.   A former Bristol Bay legislator – Jay Hammond- guided the state through the oil discovery and boom, and worked to establish a savings account called the Permanent Fund, that turned our non-renewable oil fund into a renewable economic asset.    Part of the earnings from that fund is handed out to every Alaska resident each year, and in recent times has been $2,000 each.   The money, called the Permanent Fund Dividend, has now become not a gift, but an entitlement to many.     Up until just a few years ago, extremely high oil prices allowed oil production taxes to pay for 90 percent of the state’s share of the state budget.  Now, with low oil prices, oil production tax revenue no where near covers the state budget, and the legislature has used savings accounts to make up the difference.  Those savings accounts are about gone.   Some legislators are still in a fantasy world where they they think they can cut government to match oil revenues without implementing any taxes (income, sales, etc.) or using the earnings of the Permanent Fund.  They say it can be done, but they don’t say how they would cut 3/5 of the government now here, which is what it would take.  Many living in this fantasy world are now former legislators, as wise voters replaced them in the last election. Back to Bryce – he’s now quietly risen to House Speaker at a time when a rational voice is required or the Permanent Fund itself – and not just the earnings – will be necessary to fund even a fraction of government services people now take for granted.  That would mean that not only will the free entitlement money go away that people here get just for breathing,  but also the fund itself that generates those earnings.  And once that fund is gone – well, our taxes here would make even my hyper-taxed home state of New York an attractive place to live.   We pay no income tax now, and many communities have no sales tax or property taxes either.
Bryce has tried to put in bills for a balance of using income taxes, permanent fund earnings, etc to pay for state services but neither party would have any of it.  Democratic leaders think that a recent oil tax bill was too generous to the oil companies but even if it was repealed, we’d still be broke.  The Democratic leaders, too, feel that the free money from the Permanent Fund is an entitlement like Social Security, and don’t want it touched, regardless of the consequences. Likewise, Republican leaders want nothing to do with an income tax.  Some have called for a statewide sales tax, which would not work here like it does in other states.  A gallon of milk in remote places may cost 3 or 4 times what it does in Anchorage, and so people will be paying 3 or 4 times the sales tax for the same commodity, depending on where they live. After the last election, though, those new comers that one were of a like mind with Bryce.  And those that managed to win or weren’t up for election and previously holding on to pie-in-the-sky non-solutions to the state’s problems must have seen the light and selected Bryce for the speaker position.  He’s another Bristol Bay lawmaker that, like Hammond, will guide the state through this transition to a more balanced system of funding state government, with the nest egg that Hammond left behind.    With all that, I’m sure he still smokes his own fish.