By TOM BOUTIN
If I lived in Anchorage I would be knocking on doors to promote Chris Tuck for mayor. I cannot recall ever voting for a Democrat but I would vote for him without reservation.
While I don’t agree with those who say the state is a victim of “Dunleakage economics,” I do believe that our state economy is in fact both leaking dollars and consuming far more than it’s producing, spending one-time reserves – including irreplaceable oil – to meet ongoing needs.
So the mayor of our largest city needs a fluency in economic common sense now foreign to state government and absent in Anchorage government (also absent in Juneau muni government by the way).
As a legislator, Chris Tuck had very superior public finance experience, and he originated ideas about money and banking that could have very much helped the state (and still can), but the Alaska Legislature is not always open to new ideas even when those ideas have been used successfully in other states.
Here we are in 2024, and I don’t know how much could be expected to come from state government to fix our weak economy, but I know Chris Tuck very well and anticipate his repairs to the municipal economy will be inspirational to and copied by the rest of the state.
I moved to Alaska from New Hampshire 50 years ago last year, and the economy I found here was one of hard work and innovation. My mother still has the letters I sent back in which I said that most Alaskans were working two high-paying jobs, had three business schemes, and had already accumulated enough reserves to pay cash for a farm or business.
Alaska and New Hampshire are the only two states that have neither a sales tax nor an income tax, so I think comparisons are useful. About a year ago, using numbers being frequently mentioned in the national press, I did an admittedly cursory calculation revealing that a working-age male in Alaska was 130 percent more likely to be on SNAP than his counterpart in New Hampshire.
It doesn’t surprise me that through much of 2023 the Alaska media talked about the Dunleavy administration’s inability to keep up with new SNAP applications at the very same time the same media regularly ran stories about the private sector’s inability to fill vacant positions. (Don’t forget that when economists report the unemployment rate they’re only reporting about the people actively looking for work.)
We’ve somehow eroded our work ethic by spending our oil money. One day an historian will write that in the Alaska petroleum era we focused on food stamps over factories. I don’t believe for a minute that our economic plight is due to the Jones Act, the high cost of energy, low education spending, courts delaying resource development, or too few state taxes. Government has not only owned all the land but now pays for almost all health care, more than half of all food sold at retail, and perhaps most family-wage jobs.
A dominant government has been unable to overlook people who believe an economy can only be found in handouts. I know one person working in law enforcement who says that for some population cohorts food stamps and fentanyl seem to be correlated. Recently we split in two the state department that hands out food stamp credit cards, and we touted that as progress. We’ve spent decades and at least hundreds of millions of dollars tilting at windmills such as promoting a North Slope gas line without once asking the owners of North Slope gas – people actually engaged in that industry – why they haven’t built a gas line.
We doubled our population, with a state government work force grown to meet it, while our oil production dropped by 80 percent; and we regularly (ballot measures in 2014 and 2020, and annual legislation) take a run at increasing taxes on petroleum leases agreed and inked long ago, to then curse the oil giants for not investing more here. Attorneys have run for office, and once elected we have let them renege on our word.
Chris Tuck is not an attorney, and he’s a man of his word. He is the man to run Alaska’s largest city in this time of decadence and discord. Propose something stupid to him and he will tell you it’s a stupid idea even if you flew to Alaska on your own jet.
When a governmentally owned enterprise is essential to the economy and that government fails to spend enterprise revenues at least equal to depreciation then taxpayers are being hoodwinked. That is a root cause of the Anchorage port debacle. Four or five years ago, when the late Ben Stevens was a state executive chief of staff, he ordered me to attend an Anchorage Assembly meeting and tell them they were liars regarding an aspect of port finances. When I had done that, and thanked the Assembly for letting me do it, Mark Begich, former Anchorage Mayor and U.S. senator, thanked me, shook my hand and told me someone had to set the Assembly straight.
We still have good Alaskans around, still can bring Alaska back; but we have to elect real Alaskans, which is why I write this today. I’ve been a registered Republican for decades but political parties have nothing to do with the scarcity of leadership sometimes found in government.
My expectation is that during his first several weeks as mayor, Chris Tuck will assemble the cruise ship companies and the governor to form a successful revenue bond port financing secured by a portion of cruise passenger head tax income, satisfactory to the cruise line association for rebuilding the port. Because of Juneau City/Borough misspending of head tax income, found by federal courts in summary judgement to have broken commerce laws going back well into the 19th century, the cruise line association can veto any spending of that head tax. But the income remains so large that each year Juneau solicits spending ideas for the money (almost 1.7 million passengers to Juneau last year). This is the municipality that gave a grant of taxpayers’ money to “teach drag queen lessons,” spent what the cruise line association told me was $17 million of head tax income on a brass whale, and is now planning to spend $20 million on a ski area tram it imported from Europe.
All Alaskans would be better served by spending on the Anchorage port, and Mayor Chris Tuck will bring intelligence to Anchorage city government that Juneau taxpayers will envy. He can and likely will quickly move the port discussions beyond simply naming the port!
Chris Tuck is an honest broker in the organized labor component of our economy, and having that economic constituency at the table when decisions are made is necessary – or else nothing moves, which is what too often happens in Anchorage. He is respected, and Anchorage voters deserve no less. I’ve never been a member of a labor union but I fully accept the role private sector unions play in ensuring family wage jobs for highly skilled labor. Alaska cannot return to the superior economy we once had if we leave those family wage jobs behind.
While I may have logged timber in every one of New Hampshire’s 10 counties before relocating to Alaska, I was born and raised in the part of New Hampshire where Quebec, Vermont, and Maine all meet, gaining exposure to several cultures and industries. Two towns, with a combined population of 16,000 shared a pulp and paper mill employing 2,500 in the mill and 1,000 in the woods, and that mill was owned by a Sicilian, then known in the financial press as God’s Banker. He garroted himself while incarcerated in an Italian prison, but not before he visited my high school, accompanied by a priest wearing a tall red hat, who was his interpreter. (Joking about doing the garroting himself, of course.) It was the beginning days of the Vietnam War, and in his motivational message God’s Banker told us that Russian communist boys were tougher than we were and studied harder. I wasn’t Catholic but I believed him.
New Hampshire was a complicated little place back then. My father, a Live Free or Die Republican and World War II veteran, who voted for General LeMay to be vice president, was an enforcer for the Teamsters Union for about 35 years. He drove Mack tractors from the end of the road system north of Quebec City, south to Wilmington, Del., hauling pulp and paper. When I was 10 years old, I saw one of the M1 Garands I now own used in a labor action when a nonunion trucking outfit had found a way to go around the trucking rights into Quebec. The first time I saw my father knock a man down I was six years old, and the fellow was a relative of the trucking company’s owner – mouthing off during a labor action. The owners were Italians, and the drivers were Frenchmen.
It was a few years later that I understood why my father had to knock the man down: he was a man with the impressive and unusual ability to double-deck 55 gallon oil drums, and people at the nearby laundry and the nearby factory would sometimes walk over during their breaks to watch him do it. So he was a man who had to go down at the first few punches, or else he would be a real handful.
The labor unions, that huge pulp and paper mill complex, the Catholic Church, and all the other elements toiled together to produce a very good economy and a very high standard of living even with only one income being the norm in almost all families. Except for one state trooper for both towns, and an elected county sheriff I could not have told anyone where to find any government official.
As mentioned, Alaska had an even more impressive economy and productive workforce than NH did, but now we don’t. Anchorage, and the entire state of Alaska need to return to the productive economy we once had; and we need to do it despite government, its 37.5 hour workweek, and its vast tracts of locked-up land, food stamps and fentanyl. Chris Tuck is the right man to be mayor of this one key city, and he is arriving to the position none too soon.
Please believe me when I say I can tell that progress will be made once Chris Tuck becomes mayor, and I really haven’t seen much progress in Anchorage for some time. During the past several years I have offered to bet many Anchorage business people that the Anchorage mid-town has more Class A and Class B office and retail space that has been vacant for 5 years or longer than Juneau has Class A & B space, vacant and occupied, and every single person has responded that I would win that bet; yet how often have you heard the current mayor and assembly, or any economic development nonprofit in Anchorage address that?
Forgive me for being so blunt but rhetoric and churning of the current mayor, of most of the assembly Anchorage has today and has recently had, plus the economic ideas espoused by Bill Popp amount to nothing more than one bad joke on taxpayers. Thank you for your time, and thanks to MustReadAlaska for producing this dispatch.
Tom Boutin is a Juneau resident who has served as chief of staff for the Alaska State Bond Committee, the Alaska State Pension Investment Board and the Alaska Retirement Management Board. He also was the CEO of the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, a state-owned bank, appointed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy. In addition, he worked for many years in the forest products industry.