The Institute of Social & Economic Research

The Alaska Citizen's Guide to the Budget

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Fiscal Policy Council of Alaska

Budget Myths


7. Budget Myths

Budget Myths

1. Alaska is spending five times the national per capita average.

2. Economic development will produce the revenues needed to balance the state budget without new taxes.

23. Excess Permanent Fund earnings is free money.

24. The budget could be balanced by cutting funds to education in rural Alaska.

1. Alaska spending is five times the national per capita average.

State spending per capital was 2.75 times the US average in 1999. Combined state and local government spending was 2.24 times the US average. After adjusting for the higher cost of living in Alaska the combined state and local per capita spending in Alaska was 1.85 times the US average.

Adjusting not only for the concentration of public services at the state level in Alaska and the high cost of living, but also the unique Permanent Fund dividend, the high per capita level of federal transfers, and the high level of debt service by public agencies in Alaska (AHFC and AIDEA), Alaska per capita state and local government spending was 1.46 times the U.S. average in 1999. More Information Top of Page

2. Economic development will produce the revenues needed to balance the state budget without new taxes.

The last 25 years of economic growth in Alaska has demonstrated that this is not the case. Non-oil general fund revenues adjusted for inflation are not much higher today than 25 years ago while total employment has increased by more than 100 thousand.

Without a tax structure in place to capture some of the value added generated by economic growth, economic growth is a drain on the state treasury. This is because economic growth brings more people into the state who need new schools and roads which must be paid for from oil revenues, leaving less to go around to pay for existing schools and roads. More Information Top of Page

3. A growing public sector is a drag on the economy.

Public spending becomes "cash on the street" just like business or household spending. We estimate the $6 billion state budget directly and indirectly accounts for about 100 thousand of the jobs in the economy. Thus a growing state budget, particularly if the money to pay for it does not come from taxes on Alaskans, means a growing economy. This, in fact, has been the case since big oil. The budget has grown because of large oil revenues, growing federal grants, increasing Permanent Fund earnings, and growing program receipts (like landing fees at state airports).

Cutting the budget in ways that do not reduce taxes on Alaskans will reduce the number of jobs in the economy.

Cutting the budget reduces expenditures on public services and infrastructure that enhance the quality of life for workers and reduce the cost of doing business in the state. Evidence from other states shows that a strong and growing economy needs to strike a balance between private and public spending and that states with smaller public sectors do not necessarily have strong economies.

Some people argue that government hamstrings the economy since it controls a large share of the land and other assets or because regulations prevent business development. Whether these appreciably prevent economic activity within the state is a valid concern, but it is not an argument that government itself is bad for the economy. Top of Page

4. The Legislature cannot be trusted not to spend every cent it gets.

Like everyone else, legislators respond to incentives. When the most powerful incentives are to spend state dollars, they can be very creative in finding ways to spend. This was certainly the case through most of the decade of the 1980s when there seemed to be money enough to satisfy every need.

Since the 1990s, the incentives to hold the line on budget growth have been getting stronger. Although the legislature has needed to dip into the Constitutional Budget Reserve in most years to balance the budget, the dipper has skimmed off the top and left most behind. Although many would argue that the incentives are not strong enough in the direction of restraint, they certainly have been in evidence as reflected by the fact that the general fund budget is about the same size today as it was 10 years ago.

Furthermore, the legislature on several occasions has, at their own discretion, made large deposits of money they could have spent, into the Permanent Fund. In fact through 2001 more money had been deposited into the Permanent Fund by legislative appropriation than by the Constitutionally mandated avenue of automatic royalty deposits. Top of Page

5. Public officials say they are cutting the budget, but every year it gets bigger and there are more state workers.

The general fund, that part of the budget that pays for most basic public services like education, has not grown in the last 10 years, and taking into account inflation and increase in population, has actually fallen considerably. Fee-supported activities like the International airports, federal grants, and the Permanent Fund dividend has accounted for all the growth in the total budget in the last decade.

There has been some movement of spending from the general fund into other funds to give the appearance that the general fund budget is not growing, but the amount of this shifting has been modest compared to growth from these other sources. More Information Top of Page

6. The oil companies can pay another $1 billion from their Alaska profits.

The tax base from petroleum is the value added that production generates (sales minus production costs). The larger the share that the state takes, the smaller the amount that gets returned to the investors who put up the money to explore, develop, and produce the resource. Because the return on investment in petroleum is uncertain, risky, and different for every field, it is impossible to know exactly how much the state can take as a share without scaring potential investment dollars away.

The way our revenue structure works, when the price of oil is high, investors are getting a higher return than they would need to keep pumping more investment dollars into the state. At those times some folks think we should change the tax structure to capture more of that return. However, when the price of oil is low, investors are getting a lower return than necessary to justify reinvestment.

State revenues from oil come from royalties—a payment because the state owns the land where the oil is located—and taxes. Since royalties are determined by contract in advance of production, the state cannot unilaterally change the terms.

The state could increase the production, or severance tax, rate to try to increase revenues. One component of the tax, the economic limit factor, could be adjusted to try to collect more revenues from the most profitable fields and less revenue from the least profitable or "marginal" fields. The danger is that oil companies would react by reducing new investments in exploration and development, thus resulting in less rather than more revenue to the state in future years. More Information Top of Page

7. Special Fund revenues could be channeled into the General Fund.

Although the General Fund pays for discretionary spending, most state spending comes from non-General Fund sources—federal funds, Permanent Fund earnings, and special funds (program receipts from fee-supported activities, like the international airports). These revenues are tied to specific programs (otherwise they would go into the General Fund). Trying to redirect them into the General Fund would result either in the loss of the funds (for example, federal grants) or the elimination of the programs they are currently supporting (without landing fees there would be no revenues to cover airport operations).

Special fund spending has been growing rapidly. A small part of that growth is due to shifting of some spending out of the General Fund, partly to give the appearance that we have been cutting the budget (General Fund). However, most of the special fund growth is due to program receipt growth tied to expanded economic activity, like airport landing fees, as well as growing federal grants and Permanent Fund dividends. More Information Top of Page

8. Taxing the Unorganized Borough would balance the budget.

Boroughs are the Alaska equivalent of counties in other states, but some parts of Alaska have not been organized into boroughs. This is the Unorganized Borough, and about 80 thousand people, or 12 percent of the population live there. (This is less than the number living in the Fairbanks North Star Borough).

There is a sense that people who live in the Unorganized Borough pay no taxes, but the truth is more complicated. Of the 16 boroughs in the state, only 12 impose a property tax; and of the 147 cites, 13 of those located outside of boroughs do impose a property tax.

In recent years new boroughs have formed around any new commercial activity that springs up—like the Denali Borough around the entrance to Denali National Park—and outside the organized boroughs there is not much tax base against which to impose a tax. So the amount that could be collected from a property tax on the Unorganized Borough would be quite small—a few million dollars at best after the expense of administration. Furthermore, the largest tax base in the Unorganized Borough is the oil pipeline, which the state does tax and which produces over $30 million annually in state revenues.

However, a tax—even if it did not generate a lot of revenue—would create an incentive for people to take more interest in an efficiently run government. Top of Page

9. Taxes on nonresidents could pay our bills.

Some people favor a personal income tax thinking that a large share would be paid by non-resident workers. In fact non-residents account for only about 10 percent of total wages paid in Alaska and most of that goes to low wage seasonal workers in the tourist and fishing industries. We estimate about 6 percent of an income tax would be paid by non-residents. The situation is about the same for a general sales tax. We estimate that about 7 percent would be paid by tourists and other visitors since they account for about that percent of total sales.

Most people do not realize that nonresidents already contribute to state and local revenues in many ways. At the state level they pay a share of fuel, alcohol, and tobacco taxes. At the local level they pay part of the sales and bed taxes in some communities. Non-residents also bear some of the burden of local property taxes since businesses and landlords pass those taxes onto their customers and tenants as higher prices. More Information Top of Page

10. There are lots of big pots of money that could sustain us for many years.

With total financial and other assets of $63 billion, Alaska clearly is not a poor state. Furthermore, the legislature has on many past occasions "found" pots of money to pay for critical programs during times of need, supporting the presumption that many more pots continue to be hidden in various corners of state government.

Unfortunately, over time the number of big pots has been diminishing and most of the $63 billion in assets is restricted in how it can be used. If we net out the Permanent Fund, Constitutional Budget Reserve, and the state pension funds (for retired state workers and teachers), there is about $15 billion in other accounts. This estimate does not take account of the liabilities of some of these accounts either. So if the assets of one of our public corporations were sold off for the cash to pay for government, a lot of that cash would need to go to pay off the bond holders who have lent the corporation money. There is also no guarantee that anyone would be interested in buying some of the state assets.

The $15 billion is mostly tied up in public corporations, trust funds, and smaller special accounts. These assets could be cashed out, but doing so would usually require legislative action if not a vote of the people. Each corporation, trust, and special account has been established to serve a particular purpose (although the original need may have long since disappeared) and cashing out its assets would do away with the programs it supports. More Information Top of Page

11. The budget should be cut to match revenues. That is how households balance their budgets.

If a household that has been living off its savings suddenly discovers that there is no longer any money in the bank to support basic living expenses, some of the family members will go to work. Most would agree this is a preferred solution to not working and not being able to pay the rent or clothe the children.

This is the situation that Alaska now finds itself in. For over 20 years state government has been funded largely through the conversion of our oil assets to cash—drawing down our bank account (or cashing out our tax base). The bank account is now running dry and we need to go to work to pay for basic public services required by the constitution like education, public health and safety, a court system and University. Top of Page

12. The travel budget is out of control.

In Fiscal Year 2002 the travel portion of the operating budget was $51 million, about 1.1 percent of the total. The share of each department’s budget that is travel depends on the activities of that department. As one might expect the Legislature tops the list as the agency that spends the largest share of its budget on travel, but it only amounts to $2.6 million in total. Travel per employee is tops for public safety, at over $6 thousand.

In the largest state in the nation we would expect there to be a considerable amount of travel, particularly for some departments. This is reflected in high travel per employee in Environmental Conservation, Public Safety, Fish and Game and the Governor's office. More Information Top of Page

13. The welfare budget is huge.

The Department of Health and Social Services (HSS) has the largest budget of any state agency. About one-third of its $1.5 billion operating budget is paid out of the state general fund with the rest coming mainly from federal grants to the state. Public assistance is a little more than $200 million of total department spending. The biggest part of the budget is spent on medical assistance for 4 target groups—the disabled, the elderly, children in need, and adults in need. Another big chunk of the budget targets family and youth services, alcohol abuse, mental health, and developmental disabilities. The rest of the budget is spent on general public health activities such as the state medical examiner.

Of the general fund portion of the budget, medical assistance (Medicaid) and public assistance are the biggest components. Federal law and the Alaska constitution restrict our ability to cut some parts of the HSS budget. At the same time the groups served by the programs in this department—like the elderly—are increasing in numbers.

If every program in this department could be eliminated except Medicaid and public health, it would save the general fund about $300 million—in the short run. In the long run the cost to Alaska would be much greater than this short run savings. More Information Top of Page

14. The huge budget of the Department of Administration shows there is plenty of fat in state government.

The Department of Administration is charged with providing centralized management and technology services to state agencies. But in addition to that mission, a large part of its budget goes to provide programs that promote the independence of Alaska's seniors. Finally, the Department is also in charge of vehicle licensing and legal and advocacy services for the indigent.

The general fund portion of the FY 2002 Department of Administration budget was $154 million, and of that, $75.5 million was allocated to the Longevity Bonus and Pioneers' Homes. The division of motor vehicles was allocated $9.3 million. A further $30.4 million was allocated to other senior services and legal and advocacy services.

This left $38.9 million allocated from the general fund for administrative activities. The rest of the Department of Administration budget of $128 million came from interagency receipts and other funds and was used primarily for administration. One measure of the administrative cost of government, counting both the part of the General Fund for administration and all the other funds of the department, would be $167 million, about 2.5 percent of a $7 billion budget. Of course, each department also has its own administrative section, so the total administrative cost of government is larger than that. More Information Top of Page

15. Getting rid of all the unproductive state bureaucrats—paper pushers—would reduce the budget.

Every large institution, be it public, private, or non-profit, requires an administrative structure to carry out its functions in an efficient and effective manner. Not every employee of an oil company is drilling for oil or processing crude into gasoline. There are large staffs of "bureaucrats" and "paper pushers," ranging from the people who hire the drillers to the engineers who decide where to drill for oil to the accountants who manage cash flow, pay the bills, and balance the books. If the company were to get rid of these seemingly "unproductive" workers, it would collapse virtually overnight.

Running an operation of the size and complexity of Alaska's state government—with an annual budget of about $7 billion, financial assets of more than $50 billion, physical infrastructure valued at billions of dollars scattered over the largest state in the nation, and stewardship of 100 million acres of land as well as the natural resources on the land and in the oceans—cannot be done without people.

A little over 1/4 of the operating budget goes into personnel costs. The budgets of the largest state agencies—Health and Social Services and Education and Early Development—devote the smallest shares to personnel expenditures, 12 percent and 3 percent, respectively, because most of their funds are distributed as grants to local governments and non-profits or paid directly to individuals. The agencies devoting the largest share of their operating budget to personnel expenditures are the Courts, Department of Law, Legislature, Department of Transportation, and the Governor.

About 1/3 of all state employees can be found in the University of Alaska system (over 3.6 thousand) and in the Department of Transportation (over 3.5 thousand). The Office of the Governor has the smallest number of employees--about 200. More Information Top of Page

16. Move the capital and save the cost of moving the legislature and having state offices in such an out-of-the-way corner of the state.

Since a growing majority of the population lives in the Railbelt, sending the legislature to Juneau every year, a community without road access, is expensive. Many argue that its inaccessibility also makes the legislature less responsive to the people. Finally, having most of the administrative offices in Juneau is also inefficient because they are a long way from most Alaskans.

In fact the travel budget of the legislature is less than $3 million and offsetting any savings in travel costs from moving the legislature would be the additional costs of a facility to house them. And since it makes sense for the administrative offices to be close to the legislature when it is proposing new laws and reviewing the activities of the agencies, it would not make sense to move the legislature without also moving many of the state workers now in Juneau. Housing these workers would be an additional expense.

In 1982 there was a ballot proposition for moving the Alaska state capital to Willow, and a cost estimate was prepared for a full-blown capital move that included construction of important buildings (legislative offices, a capital building). The cost at the time was estimated to be $2.5 billion, and adjusted for inflation to today, the cost would be over $4 billion. Even a "bare bones" move involving no buildings or indemnification of Juneau residents for economic losses to that community would be $74 million. More Information Top of Page

17. Privatization can cut the cost of government.

First, someone still has to pay if services are privatized. It may be through a user fee rather than a tax, but the cost will not disappear.

Second, the cost may be less with privatization, but the quality of the service may be compromised. "You get what you pay for" applies just as much with public as with private services.

Third, the public remains ultimately responsible for the adequacy of the service, including making sure that public funds are spent wisely. The expense of management and oversight of the activity may offset any cost savings from giving the job to the private sector.

An argument often made for privatization is that the private sector is more efficient than the public sector. However, for many public services the objective of fairness has priority over efficiency. For example, our legal system is not the most efficient way to deal with alleged criminals, but it is the fairest system yet devised.

The legislature recently conducted a study of privatization, and produced a report entitled Commission on Privatization and Delivery of Government Services (21st Legislature, January 2000). The report pointed out many activities of government are already privatized. There were no estimates of the possible cost savings from implementation of the recommendations in the report. The Commission compiled a list of 20 recommendations, including the sale of land and moving the capital, but none have been implemented. More Information Top of Page

18. The tax burden on households and business is excessive.

Alaska households pay federal (income) and local (property and sales) taxes, but no sales tax, and since it was repealed in 1980 we have no state personal income tax. Although state government delivers services that in other states are the responsibility of local government, households are not asked to pay.

For most Alaskan households, Permanent Fund dividends return more in cash than local property and sales taxes take away so the net cost of state and local government combined is close to zero. Household Tax Burden FAQ

Studies examining the tax burden for a typical family in the largest city in each state routinely show Anchorage with one of the lowest tax burdens because of the absence of any broad-based state tax. Tax Comparison to Other States

Alaska businesses that are organized as corporations pay the state corporate income tax. Collections in recent years have amounted to less than 1/2 of 1 percent of the value added generated by private industries in the state. Some industries are singled out for special taxes, like seafood and mining, but legislative studies have consistently shown that Alaska basic industries pay less in taxes and fees than the cost of the public services that directly benefit them. Corporate Taxes

The majority of Alaska corporations as well as businesses that are not organized as corporations (such as fishermen and lawyers) pay no state income taxes.

Households and businesses do pay taxes associated with fuel, tobacco, and liquor. Our fuel tax rate is among the lowest in the nation but our "sin tax" (tobacco and alcohol) rates are near the top compared to other states. More Information Top of Page

19. Legislative pet projects are the problem.

The capital budget has historically contained lots of goodies for everyone, but most of the projects are financed by federal dollars. These federal dollars come with strings attached—they have to be spent in ways determined by federal guidelines. If we tried to spend that money in other ways, the federal government would take it back no matter how much more useful we might think these other projects were.

Furthermore, these federal dollars provide a boost to economic activity in the state, and turning them away would take away a lot of high wage construction jobs.

On the other hand, federal dollars cannot be used to pay for operations and maintenance of capital facilities. The financial obligations to operate and maintain these facilities can be an added burden on the state budget. These obligations can indeed be part of the problem. More Information Top of Page

20. Public sector employment continues to grow.

Almost all the growth in public employment in the last 20 years has not been at the state level. It has been in local government—the level of government responsible for hiring the teachers, police, firemen, and other workers providing services most directly linked to population. State government employment has increased much more slowly and, unlike local government, has been declining as a share of total employment. This may reflect the capture of some "economies of scale" in state government operations as the population grows. More Information Top of Page

21. Reducing public sector pay scales to private sector levels would balance the budget.

The public sector wage in Alaska, after adjusting for the higher cost of living, is just about equal to the U.S. average today, although in years past it was above the U.S. average. There is also no evidence that the wage for particular occupations in the public sector is out of line with the private sector, although differences in benefits make it complicated to make this comparison. If the public wage were to fall below what the rest of the market were offering—either the private sector or other states—then the quality of workers the state could attract and hold would fall. The best workers would be attracted by the highest wages.

The average wage in the public sector is higher than the average wage in the private sector because of the different occupational mixes in the two sectors. This is the case everywhere, and not only in Alaska. More Information Top of Page

22. Making all government workers put in a 40-hour week would balance the budget.

Increasing state worker hours per week, without compensation, from 37.5 to 40 hours per week would decrease their hourly wage rate and would be greeted very unfavorably. Aside from the impact on the morale of state workers, this would produce only a modest cost savings. Under the best of circumstances (that the work force could be eventually cut by 6.25% to offset the increase in total hours worked), the eventual savings would be 6.25% of the wage bill. Top of Page

23. Excess Permanent Fund earnings is free money.

There is no such thing as a free lunch. Permanent Fund earnings can be divided into two parts: inflation proofing and the rest.

In order to maintain the purchasing power, or real value, of the Fund, it needs to be inflation proofed by adding an amount annually equal to the erosion in Fund value from inflation during the previous year. If inflation has been 3 percent, we need to add back into the Fund the share of earnings equal to 3 percent of the value of the Fund. If we don't do this, the Fund will decline in real value by 3 percent and next year, although the number of dollars in the Fund would be unchanged, those dollars will only buy 97 percent of what they were able to buy a year earlier. Although that does not seem like much of a loss, it would quickly compound and before long the loss in Fund value would be very large indeed. Furthermore, if the inflation rate were higher, the erosion of the Fund would be faster.

The rest of the earnings of the Fund can be spent without eroding the value of the Fund itself. Most, but not all, currently goes to pay the dividend.

The earnings left after inflation proofing and payment of the dividend has been periodically added to the Fund balance, but it could instead be used to pay for public services (or for any other purpose chosen by the legislature).

Any earnings spent today will not be available to add to the size of the Fund or to spend at some future time. When these earnings should be spent depends on when they will produce the most benefit for Alaskans—which could be today, or it could be some time in the future. Top of Page

24. The budget could be balanced by cutting funds to education in rural Alaska.

The student foundation program, which funds K-12 education throughout the state, is the largest program paid for out of the state General Fund—about $638 million in 2001. The amount of funding to each district is based upon a complicated formula that takes into account the number of students, cost, and many other factors. The bottom line is that the support for each student varies considerably across the state.

In 2001 the average support in urban areas was about $4,200 while in rural parts of the state, with 30 percent of the students, it was about $6,400. There are a number of reasons why the support for rural students has been higher than for urban students.

If in 2001 we had reduced the support in rural areas—everywhere except Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, the Kenai Peninsula and Mat-Su—to the urban average, the foundation program budget would have fallen by $89 million or 14%. More Information Top of Page

25. There is always a year-end spending spree, so there can't be a problem.

Responsible financial managers will always plan to have a little extra money "just in case" some unexpected expense comes up during the year. This is true in the world of business just as much as in the public sector. When the year ends, those same managers will spend any leftover funds rather than let them revert to the General Fund. This may appear to be a spending spree, but in most cases the amounts are small and they are spent on priority items that contribute to the agency mission.

Each year the legislature always adds some spending to the budget for the year that is almost over. These "supplemental" appropriations have a place in the normal budgeting process since they allow for changes in the level of spending to take account of changing circumstances that could not be anticipated at the start of the year. However, there has been some misuse of the "supplemental" appropriations process in recent years. More Information Top of Page

26. If we were efficient, government would cost the same as in other states.

Comparisons with other states are usually based on spending per person. Alaska spends more even after adjusting for the higher cost of living, special programs like the Longevity Bonus and management of public lands and other resources, and the fact that state government here is delivering services that are handled by local governments in most other states.

This is due to our size, dispersed population, location, and climate. Our population density is about 1 person per square mile, compared to a national average of about 76. For example, we have about 4 times the miles of highway as Rhode Island, but only half the population. If we were to maintain our roads at their per mile rate, it would cost us 8 times as much per capita. Only the largest communities, like Anchorage, have a concentration of population that allows us to take advantage of "economies of scale" in the delivery of public services. More Information Top of Page

27. There is no fiscal problem.

The state spends about $1 billion each year more than it collects in revenues, and the shortfall, or fiscal gap, is growing every year. This is because of our heavy reliance on revenues from oil production, which has fallen 50% from its peak of 2 million barrels per day in 1988. Basically, for every 50 cents we collect in revenues, we spend $1. Of course, that can go on only as long as there are cash reserves we can use to make up the difference. We have used about $5 billion in cash reserves over the last decade to fill the gap, and they are just about gone. When they have all been spent, we will have to find some other revenue source virtually overnight. In the mean time, if oil revenues (our main revenue source) fall, as they have often done in the past, we will have no reserve. More Information Top of Page

28. Budget cuts won't affect me.

There are 3 ways that massive budget cuts would impact all Alaskans. First, basic public services—education, road maintenance, public safety, health, and resource management—would be cut. Second, businesses that provide services to the government would lose business and lay off workers. Third, the loss of income to the families of laid off public employees would depress the entire economy, and the multiplier effect would cause a further reduction in spending, jobs, and income. If severe enough, the economy could contract, causing population and property values to fall. More Information Top of Page

29. Rising oil prices will save us.

Oil Prices are quite volatile, moving up and down with some regularity based on market conditions. When the price is particularly high, there is market pressure for it to fall, and it always does. When it is low, there are market forces that drive it up, and this has always been the case. The price for Alaska North Slope Crude over the last 10 years has averaged about $20 per barrel without any upward or downward trend. However, during that time, it has been as low as about $9 and as high as about $32. Unfortunately, when the price is high, people mistakenly think it will stay high; and also when it is low, people mistakenly think it will stay low. More Information Top of Page

30. ANWR and the Gas Line would produce enough revenues to fund government.

Development of oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) or construction of a gas line to bring the natural gas reserves on the North Slope to market are big projects that could produce hundreds of millions of revenues for the state. At best neither one can begin generating revenues for many years, perhaps before 2010, and neither one is a "sure thing". ANWR is currently closed to development and requires a Congressional decision to open it. None of the gas line proposals (over the top, along the highway, or down into Cook Inlet) is yet economically feasible and none will be built until it is.

We cannot estimate the revenues that either of these projects could produce for the state at this time, but none of the studies that have examined these projects suggests revenues of a magnitude that would together likely generate $1 billion per year. Because of this uncertainty, we cannot rely on them as a revenue source. More Information Top of Page

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