• Forecast
  • News Tip
  • Categories
Temperature Precipitation
Estimated read time
7m 18s

Eye on the Capitol: Week 4 analysis and review

By Rhonda McBride 6:01 AM February 17, 2014

House majority leaders have already vowed to cut spending beyond what the governor has proposed for the operating and capital budgets.

ANCHORAGE – Alaska lawmakers are now a third of the way through the 2014 legislative session, expending a lot of energy on social issues like education while Gov. Sean Parnell’s gas line legislation has been quietly percolating through various committees.

In the midst of all of this, the Democrats — while they have no power to thwart the Republican majority, at least as far as numbers go — continue to act like the mouse that roared.

Tuesday, the Senate majority held a news conference in what appeared to be a preemptive move to insulate Senate Bill 21 from criticism over the Department of Revenue’s latest oil production forecast, which shows oil production declining by more than 40 percent over the next decade.

Thus far this year, the Republican majority has kept a tight lid on debate about SB 21, the oil tax reform measure that took effect this January.

Democrats called out the governor last week. They claim he deliberately misled the public on SB 21 by promising it would lead to more oil production.

The Parnell administration said the lower forecast has nothing to do with SB 21 but is the result of a switch to a more conservative way of forecasting production.

In the past, an oil company’s plans for more development were included in the forecast. If the project was delayed or shelved it threw the forecast off, so the department said it will now no longer include such plans until the fields under development are closer to producing oil.

Mike Pawlowski, deputy commissioner of revenue, said with growing activity on the North Slope the production forecast should improve in the near term. But the state has, for now, stopped the practice of counting chickens before they hatch.

Democrats call this a cover-up for the failure of SB 21 and blasted Parnell for a promise to put one million barrels of oil in the pipeline, a promise his staff said was based on offshore development from Shell that is now on hold.

Republicans defended SB 21 as the state’s best hope for increased production and argued that it’s too early to tell if it’s working. They dismissed rumblings from the Democrats as election-year rhetoric.

Another message oft repeated since the start of session: A future natural gas line is dependent on a healthy oil industry.

The Parnell administration has been laying its cards on the table a few at a time, presumably to give lawmakers time to focus on the importance of each card and how it figures in the state’s strategy for ownership in a liquified natural gas (LNG) project.

Critics complain the governor is keeping too much too close to the vest; that lawmakers need to see the entire hand in order to make the best decision for the state, one that will affect Alaskans for generations.

This year’s $2 billion revenue shortfall has already heightened the debate over education funding.

Last Monday, an annual event known as the Legislative Fly-In brought school boards, superintendents and students from all over the state to Juneau to lobby for education. There was a repeated cry for increased funding, one that won’t let up.

Sunni Hilts, president of the Alaska Association of School Boards, called on lawmakers to dream big and warned that the state is “inching its way into mediocrity.”

Speaking of big dreams, Alaska lost one of its earliest big dreamers Friday morning — Mike Stepovich, Alaska’s last territorial governor. He died a few weeks shy of turning 95, one of the last living connections to the story of early statehood.

Sen. John Coghill said it was a good feeling to be able to talk with some of state’s founding fathers, and that Alaska was lucky that Stepovich was blessed with the longevity to share what he knew. Coghill called Stepovich a “big picture thinker, a little bit of a dreamer,” whose dreams helped build Alaska.

Statehood was one of the big chapters in Alaska history, followed by one on oil of which the final pages are still being written. The next chapter — if it ever happens — will be gas.

The statehood and oil chapters are filled with regrets about the deals that Alaskans settled on, with feelings of what might have been had we fought harder for our fair share.

In statehood, we could have used a lot more land. With oil, people wonder if we would have been better off investing in the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Of course, back then Alaska didn’t have billions of dollars in savings. With gas, we wonder if the deal before us now is the right deal, one that we won’t regret fifty years from now.

In the coming weeks, there will be serious discussions. But will these issues get the focus they deserve? Will lawmakers fully grasp the implications?

There are already a lot of distractions. Legislators on both sides of the political aisle still have a lot of questions about whether the TransCanada Corporation should be a partner in an LNG project unless it goes through a bidding process.

The Parnell administration has called its deal with TransCanada a win-win, allowing the state to extricate itself cleanly from the financial obligations of the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act (AGIA). The administration has worked a deal with TransCanada in which the pipeline company would put up the cash for some of the state’s investment in an LNG project, giving the state the opportunity to buy it back at a later time.

So far, these kind of choices facing the state have not really gotten the spotlight necessary to determine if they truly put the state on a different playing field, where Alaska will be positioned to be on the winning side of the revenue stream.

One of the candidates for governor, Democrat Byron Mallott, has said there should be statewide forums on the LNG project options so the state as a whole can understand what’s at stake.

In the meantime, Alaskans should prepare for sacrifices.

Declining oil production equals declining state revenues. That’s the bottom line.

Lawmakers will be faced with some tough decisions, as well as criticism for not walking their talk.

An Alaska Public Radio Network report looked at the travel budget for lawmakers. In 2013, they racked up a million-dollar travel bill, a nearly 50 percent increase from last year.

The increase in travel costs would have paid one year of a three-year pilot project on suicide prevention that the Legislature funded. A delegation from two Yukon River villages traveled to Juneau last week to thank lawmakers for funding the Qungasvik program, which has drastically reduced suicide rates in Alakanuk and Emmonak. The group would like to see the program expand to other communities.

The Key Coalition had a bigger presence than the Qungasvik delegation. About a hundred people rallied on the Capitol steps Thursday to push for more state support for the developmentally and intellectually disabled. One of the group’s top priorities is to reduce the waiting list for services.

And it’s not just social causes that are less likely to be funded.

Rep. Doug Isaacson of North Pole is pushing to extend the railroad from Fairbanks to Deadhorse. Isaacson wants University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers to explore this project, which could drastically reduce shipping costs to the North Slope and help lower the costs of producing oil. But the proposal for a study was shot down by fellow Republicans as too expensive, especially in a time of declining dollars.

Earlier in the session, the Association of Village Council Presidents — an organization that represents tribal groups in Southwest Alaska — went before the Senate Finance Committee to talk about building a road between the Kuskokwim and Yukon Rivers at Kalskag. It would help villages on the Upper Kuskokwim, where fuel is $9 a gallon and higher. Fuel could be shipped down the Yukon at a much lower cost to those communities. Goods that arrive in Bethel, a large port on the Kuskokwim, could be shipped to the Yukon, also helping communities save money.

So many causes, but so few dollars to go around.

House majority leaders have already vowed to cut spending beyond what the governor has proposed for the operating and capital budgets. In the coming days, Alaskans will learn more what that means and find out whether the Senate has the same appetite.

But the political pressure is mounting to both cut and spend. One of the ironies is that those who say they want to cut spending also want to spend more on certain programs.

As the saying goes, “Round and round she goes, and where she stops, nobody knows.”

Well, we may know at the end of the session’s 90 days. But then again, we may not.

Latest Stories

  • Lifestyle

    Here’s when hospital patients are less likely to die

    by Amy Norton / Health Day / CBS on Mar 25, 18:05

    Hospital patients may be less likely to die if they are treated during weeks that inspectors are checking on the staff, a new study suggests. In the United States, hospitals are accredited by a body known as the Joint Commission. Inspectors from the commission make unannounced visits to each hospital every 18 to 36 months, […]

  • News

    Trump budget proposal cuts funding for after-school, free meal programs in Alaska

    by Heather Hintze on Mar 25, 17:58

    One of President Donald Trump’s budget proposals could leave thousands of Alaska kids without after-school programs or summer lunches. Trump’s plan calls to eliminate $1.2 billion in grants for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers. In Alaska, there are about 5,700 students in 37 of those federally funded programs. The Mountain View Elementary School after-school program regularly […]

  • Sports

    Lions, Grizzlies crowned 3A champs in ASAA high school basketball state tournament finals

    by KTVA Sports on Mar 25, 17:51

    The final games for the 3A and 4A classifications in the Alaska School Activities Association (ASAA) high school basketball state tournament were set to take place this weekend at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage.  Last weekend, the 1A titles were taken home by the Scammon Bay Lady Eagles and the Ninilchik Wolverines, while the Bristol Bay Lady Angels and Petersburg […]

  • News

    Royal Suite Lodge fire child victims receive a special gift from Anchorage woman

    by KTVA CBS 11 News on Mar 25, 17:43

    When Denise Bogue-Skoniecski first heard about the fatal Royal Suite Lodge fire, she said she knew things were bad, but hearing about what the youngest of the victims lost drove her to do something. “When I heard about the two little girls – trying not to cry – who lost their mama, the Lord laid […]

  • Lifestyle

    ‘Solar-powered skin’ could open new doors for prosthetics

    by Ashley Welch / CBS News on Mar 25, 12:58

    Engineers have developed a new way of harnessing the sun’s rays to power “synthetic skin” that they hope can be used to create advanced prosthetic limbs capable of returning the sense of touch to amputees. The researchers from the University of Glasgow had previously created “electronic skin” for prosthetic hands made from graphene, a highly […]

  • News

    London attacker Khalid Masood taught English in Saudi Arabia

    by CBS/AP on Mar 25, 12:49

    The British man who killed four people during a London rampage had made three trips to Saudi Arabia: He taught English there twice on a work visa and returned on a visa usually granted to those going on a religious pilgrimage. More details about attacker Khalid Masood’s travels, confirmed by the Saudi Arabian embassy in […]

  • Sports

    Alaska’s Hebard leads Oregon to another NCAA win

    by Dave Goldman on Mar 25, 12:21

    They did it again. West Valley High School’s Ruthy Hebard helped the 10th-seeded University of Oregon Ducks women’s basketball team to another upset win in the NCAA tournament. This time it was a 77-63 shocker over the third-seeded Maryland Terps at the regional in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The victory puts the Ducks into the Elite Eight […]

  • Lifestyle

    In lavish style, entourage of Chinese tourists and crew runs its own ‘Iditarod’

    by Tyler Stup / KNOM on Mar 25, 12:03

    Days before the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race finished, on Sunday, March 12, a group of Chinese tourists arrived at Nome’s burled arch after mushing the trail themselves. But unlike the competitive finishers of Iditarod 2017, these first-time mushers had been aided in their run by a large entourage of traveling trail staff, with a bevy […]