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Eye on the Capitol: Week 5 analysis and review

By Rhonda McBride 6:37 AM February 24, 2014

It was an eventful week, both inside and outside the Capitol.

ANCHORAGE – It was a week bookended by rallies on education; one on the Capitol steps on Monday and another at the Loussac Library on Saturday, both organized by Democrats.

Without the legislative votes to effect change, it seems the minority is increasingly turning to public pressure for leverage.

By Thursday, House Speaker Mike Chenault expressed annoyance over the political pot stirring — the same day Democrats rolled out their own package of education bills, which includes a $404 increase to the Base Student Allocation (BSA), the amount the state sets aside for each student. Democrats also want to inflation-proof the BSA and raise the BSA for charter schools.

Democrats said they believe the battle over the BSA is creating a groundswell of public support that will be hard for the Legislature to ignore. They also had some other stocking stuffers: a $5,000 bonus for outstanding principals, more money to help charter schools with startup costs and a mechanism to co-locate new charter school programs at neighborhood schools.

It’s not clear how far the minority will get with these proposals. They will likely wind up being stuck in committee, especially since they’ve been introduced fairly late in the session. At a news conference Democrats called to announce their new package of bills, they didn’t disguise the fact that they’re piggy backing on the governor’s “Education Session,” and said, with all the discussions in the Legislature on education, now is the best time to bring forward new legislation.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski channels Ted Stevens

If the Democrats’ buffet of bills created some indigestion, Republicans enjoyed some comfort food on Wednesday in a speech from Sen. Lisa Murkowski that was clearly crafted to appeal to an issue important to the Republican base — battling federal overreach.

Murkowski cited a litany of federal transgressions, from an overzealous Environmental Protection Agency to blocking the emergency road from King Cove to Cold Bay. She declared that “overreach seems to be written into Washington’s DNA.”

She said she’s worn many hats over the years, from mediator to educator, but she’s about to put on a new one, a “hell raiser,” and channel her inner Ted Stevens. Murkowksi promised to not give up on getting a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge and said she plans on making as much mischief as possible to keep the issue in the political spotlight, whether it be to hold up nominations or openly confront the interior department.

Murkowski also shared her annoyance with Obama administration officials — who she said told her to “get over it” — over the King Cove Road.

Later on the Senate floor, it looked like some senators where channeling the late Gov. Wally Hickel, who in an act of brash defiance built a road to Prudhoe Bay.

Sen. Click Bishop said if he were Murkowski, he would have called the federal officials back and said, “I got past it. I’m 10 miles past it.”  To which Charlie Huggins, the Senate president, replied, “Man the dozers.”

It’s not clear whether it’s even possible for King Cove to defy the federal government and build its own road, but Murkowski said she wouldn’t stand in the way of civil disobedience.

Energy Break called off

Lawmakers said the political climate in Washington makes it less important to attend the annual Energy Council conference there. Typically, the Legislature shuts down for a week in early March to allow lawmakers to attend. Some of their aides have attended as well, so there’s been a lot of carping over the years about the costs.

Lawmakers have defended the annual conference as a chance to meet their counterparts in oil producing states and countries, and trade notes on their dealings with oil companies, as well as hear from market experts. They also use the time to educate government officials about Alaska, but Sen. John Coghill said he doesn’t believe the Obama administration is interested in anything Alaska has to say.

The Legislature has had criticism over its ballooning travel budget, which grew to about $1 million last year, up 50 percent.

Lawmakers said the need to cut down costs might have played into it, but there were other factors, such as pressure to get down to business on natural gas legislation. Lawmakers also want to end the session early so they can return home for Easter.

House Speaker Mike Chenault wouldn’t say whether a special session might be in the offing to deal with gas issues. But he did tell reporters if there was one, lawmakers would likely return in the week following Easter or soon thereafter.

Supreme Court values pipeline at almost $10 billion

In the midst of hearings on the governor’s natural gas legislation and his recent agreements with the industry, the Supreme Court’s ruling on the value of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline sent some ripples through the Capitol.

The court’s decision was an important victory for municipalities. It ruled the pipeline has a value close to $10 billion, not $850 million, the figure the pipeline owners wanted to use.

Repeated requests for interviews with the governor on this decision were deferred. His spokesperson, Sharon Leighow, has said the governor won’t comment until he reads the entire court decision.

For Marty McGee, the assessor Gov. Sean Parnell pulled off the State Assessment Review Board, the court ruling was validating.

For those skeptical of Big Oil, the decision is proof that the oil industry can’t be believed, and Alaskans ignore the nature of the beast at their own risk if they don’t recognize that the oil and gas industry’s primary directive is to protect its own interests and the interests of its shareholders. Those who support state ownership in the Alaska Liquified Natural Gas project say ownership will avoid this kind of litigation because the state will partner with the oil companies and will get to see their numbers.

Still, some municipalities are nervous about the state being on the same team with the industry. They worry about whether some of the language on state consultation with municipalities is strong enough to allow them to have enough input on taxation. They say it appears the oil industry is taking steps to limit their ability to tax for services that will be necessary to provide once the project ramps up.

The state’s consultants, who have given numerous presentations this session, keep saying gas is different than oil — a statement that has some lawmakers worried about how the legislation will play out over the years, because their experience with oil may or may not be valid.

There is one thing that truly is different and important to keep in mind. The state is really looking at being a partner in three mega-projects, not one. Aside from the pipeline, there’s a gas treatment plant on the North Slope and a liquefaction plant at Cook Inlet. In the earlier project, which was a gas line to the Lower 48, the pipeline was the main component.

The Parnell administration has been very orderly in its presentation of these projects and the enabling legislation it hopes to pass this session.

But as we head towards the session’s midpoint, there will be plenty of distractions to contend with, including new oil and gas taxation bills.

Governor appoints Sam Kito III to replace Beth Kerttula

Whether you are a Sean Parnell fan or not, most lawmakers appreciate him for what appears to be an innate desire to impose order.

He appointed Beth Kerttula’s replacement according to established tradition; by choosing among the three candidates selected by the local Tongass Democrats and within the 30-day time limit prescribed by law.

The last time a Juneau lawmaker resigned it was a very messy situation. This was in 2009, when Kim Elton left to take a job in the Obama administration. Sarah Palin was governor and had just returned from her campaign for the Republican vice presidency.

Tongass Democrats wanted Rep. Beth Kerttula to become the next senator. They worried that, of the sent three names to Palin, she would not choose Kerttula because of comments she had made against Palin during her campaign for vice president. So Tongass Democrats broke with tradition and only forwarded one name to Palin — Kerttula’s.

Palin named some candidates of her own, which were ultimately rejected by Senate Democrats who must confirm the governor’s choice. Finally Dennis Egan was chosen, a compromise candidate.

This latest appointment was an entirely different picture.

The governor introduced Sam Kito III as his choice to replace Kerttula, flanked by Egan, Juneau Rep. Cathy Munoz and the mayor of Juneau who all congratulated Kito and welcomed him to the Juneau delegation.

The governor thanked the Tongass Democrats for their open process, which included public interviews as well as written interviews posted online.

Jesse Kiehl, one of the other two candidates, who currently serves as a legislative aide for Egan and on the Juneau Assembly, came to the governor’s conference room to congratulate Kito personally. It was a sign that Kiehl is definitely a class act who likely has a bright political future ahead of him. Kiehl said he has no plans right now to run against Kito in the Democratic primary. He said he is focused on being reelected to the Assembly.

The other candidate, Catherine Reardon, is a former vice chairwoman of the Alaska Democratic Party.

So why Sam Kito III? The governor said he liked Kito’s vision for the future, one that Kito described as focused on creating jobs for his daughter and the next generation of Alaskans.

From his resume, you can see why a resource Republican like Parnell would gravitate towards a resource Democrat like Kito. He’s a civil engineer who has worked on numerous transportation and economic development projects.

In his written statements to the party, Kito has pledged to vote with the Democratic minority and said he does not support Senate Bill 21, the oil tax reform measure that passed last session and now up for a referendum.

At his news conference on Friday, Kito’s opposition to SB 21 seemed softer than what he wrote in his statements. He told reporters he opposed the measure in concept but would like to find out more about the measure’s impact on the state budget.

Also of note in Kito’s appointment: Kito has worked as a lobbyist.

His father, Sam Kito Jr., is also a lobbyist. Typically lawmakers leave the Legislature to become lobbyists, not the other way around. At last week’s news conference, Governor Parnell did not mention anything about Kito’s work as a lobbyist, though when asked about Kito’s political contributions to Republican candidates, he said he was unaware of them.

Democrats say the governor’s decision to appoint an Alaska Native was purely political, especially when he will face a prominent Alaska Native, Byron Mallott, in the general election.

One other tidbit: Kito and Parnell are both graduates of East High School in Anchorage. Well, at least we know the two have a bond between them.

The governor has asked Democrats to conduct their confirmation vote on the House floor, rather than do it in closed caucus as has been the practice in both parties in recent years.

The governor is apparently a student of history. You may recall, earlier this year, he said he read through past State of the State speeches for inspiration.

On Friday, he said he looked back at when the tradition changed to confirming appointments in closed caucus and said in the interest of transparency, he thinks it’s a good idea to go back to the original practice of confirming candidates in the open.

This Monday evening, House Democrats are scheduled to meet — including those who have joined the Republican majority — to decide their next move.

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