The Great Alaskan Giveaway Puts Gold in Them Thar Mailboxes

UPDATED 08/30/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/30/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT

In 1897 thousands of prospectors trekked north on the Alaska Gold Rush, obsessed with a dream of instant wealth to be found in the permafrosted bowels of the earth. Few of them earned enough to pay back the cost of their passage; many died in the frigid wastes of the cruel North.

Alas, they came too soon. This year Alaska has finally yielded up its fabled wealth. In a windfall of storybook proportions, $440 million is being distributed in the 49th state, $1,000 to every man, woman and child. "I've always wanted a mink coat," bubbles Janice Rand, 49, an Anchorage phone company employee who pooled her check with that of her husband (and co-worker) Mike to acquire a toffee-colored mink with white trim. "I love Mike without the coat," she says, "but I sure do love him more with it."

The state government's unusual largess is a reaction to a true embarrassment of riches. Since the huge oil strike at Alaska's Prudhoe Bay in 1968, the state has reaped over $11 billion in taxes and royalties. Republican Gov. Jay Hammond, who under Alaska law cannot run for a third consecutive term, used the money to abolish the state income tax in 1980. He also set up a state "savings account" for future needs. That fund has now reached $3.4 billion. Under Hammond's original plan, the state would have paid out part of the interest at a rate of $50 per person for every year of residence in the state. This year the U.S. Supreme Court disallowed that, so the present system, passed by the legislature as a backup, went into effect. In 1983 all residents are expected to receive $356 per person and in 1984, $247.

For Lisa Pollett, 22, and her fiancé, 23-year-old Greg Aucutt, the bonanza led to marriage. College sweethearts at Washington State, they came to Alaska six months ago, just in time to meet the minimum residency requirement for the $1,000 checks. "We've been thinking about getting married for quite some time," says Lisa. "But we were waiting until we were more financially secure." The couple used half of their money to purchase wedding rings—an $800 diamond for Lisa and a $200 gold band for Greg—at an Anchorage jewelry store whose newspaper ads read: "Splurge! It's not every day you get $1,000 from the State!"

For some Alaskans, the money will mean survival rather than luxury. Wassie Balluta, 43, is an Athabascan Indian and the mayor of the tiny fishing village of Newhalen (pop.: 110), 200 miles southwest of Anchorage. Says Balluta: "The money will go for fuel next winter. I was going to put it in a fund for my children's college education, but since fishing is not so good this year, it must go to support my family. Everybody around here is broke."

Inevitably, the program has its detractors. Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Fink complains that "the checks will bring out the basest instincts in people and attract the unemployed to Alaska." Even more adamant is 69-year-old Joe Vogler of Fairbanks, a lawyer who's lived in Alaska since 1942, working as a trucker, logger and miner. A longtime advocate of separating Alaska from the rest of the U.S., Vogler has even lobbied delegates of the United Nations to promote "Alaska for the Alaskans." He argues that the giveaway has "made Alaska a perfect fool in the eyes of 230 million Americans. We should be building roads, docks, airports, hydroelectric plants, hospitals and schools with the money. What the hell is $1,000 going to do for most people? It's insanity." Vows Vogler: "I won't even cash my check."

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