As Oil Tax Vote Nears, Two ConocoPhillips Employees Under Scrutiny
Senators declare conflict of interest; required to vote anyway
JUNEAU - As the Senate nears a vote on a major oil tax bill, the spotlight is turning on two senators who work for ConocoPhillips.
But there is little chance the two Republicans will abstain from voting.
Kevin Meyer of Anchorage and Peter Micciche of Soldotna have been key players in the oil tax debate this session, Meyer as co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee and Micciche as co-chair of the Special Committee on TAPS Throughput.
Now the group Backbone is asking them to recuse themselves from voting, or else to actually vote against Senate Bill 21, to avoid the perception of a conflict of interest.
Backbone is the group that formed in 1999 to protest BP's planned acquisition of Arco's North Slope assets.
It was unsuccessful last year in supporting the Senate bipartisan majority, which was dismantled by the election results.
The oil tax bill would cost the state treasury an estimated $6.4 billion through 2019.
Governor Parnell and other supporters have said it's necessary to attract more industry investment and increase production on the North Slope.
The bill originally was scheduled for action on the Senate floor Monday, but that has been pushed back to Wednesday, apparently indicating that the vote will be close.
Tuesday on the Senate floor, Meyer and Micciche went through the familiar ritual of declaring a conflict of interest.
"There may be concern with some that my employment outside of my duty as a state senator may present a conflict of interest in the matters of interest before this body today,” Meyer said. “So I would move and ask unanimous consent to be excused from the vote on SB 21, due to a perceived conflict of interest."
Senate President Charlie Huggins responded: "Object. We have an objection."
Then Micciche rose. "I'm employed in the natural gas industry by an oil company and there may be a perceived or actual conflict of interest. So I also move and ask unanimous consent to abstain from voting due to a conflict of interest or any perception of a conflict."
A senator was heard to say "object," and Huggins noted it. "We have an objection, Senator Micciche."
Because other senators objected, Meyer and Micciche are expected to vote.
But with the issue so momentous and the vote expected to be so close, Backbone said the two should either not vote or vote no.
“We're making political decisions based on the commercial influence of the oil industry, and I think that's a very sad place for us to be today," said David Gottstein of Backbone.
Gottstein said with Meyer and Micciche now required to vote, he does not have much hope that they will find a way to avoid voting for the bill.
Anchorage Democrat Bill Wielechowski, who was a member of the bipartisan group Backbone supported in the 2012 election, was visibly angry on the Senate floor as he questioned Meyer about the bill.
Wielechowski followed it up with an email blast passing along suggestions he's received for alternative uses of $6.4 billion.
Among them: Give every high school senior a free four-year college education for the next 150 years, or pay every Alaskan’s property tax bill for the next six and a half years.
Meanwhile, House Democrats lamented the fact that the bill reached the Senate floor in its current form.
At their weekly press availability, members of the minority said that the hit to the state budget would imperil the state.
They continued to describe SB 21 as an unnecessary giveaway to multi-national corporations that don't need it.
"If you want to give this money away to the oil companies, do you want to take the safe drinking water and the safe sewage system away from the villages?" asked Rep. Max Gruenberg, D-Anchorage.
"I will tell you that there [is] no amount of budget-cutting that can offset the multi-billion-dollar giveaway that's happening right now," said Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage.
The Democrats say they can only support tax breaks if they are contingent upon production of new oil.
But in the House, the minority is outgunned by 30 to 10.