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Senate Democrats say gas line partisanship has gone too far

By Rhonda McBride 6:09 AM February 7, 2014

Both Democrats and Republicans alike acknowledge decisions made today will affect Alaskans for generations.

JUNEAU – In a democracy, the majority rules, and the majority makes the rules, which means it’s not an easy time for Democrats in the Senate.

But lately, they’ve been chaffing under the strict discipline of the Senate President Charlie Huggins; particularly Sen. Bill Wielechowski.

The problems started in the first days of the session, when Sen. Hollis French requested that Wielechowski take his seat on the Senate Natural Resources Committee. French, an Anchorage Democrat and candidate for Lt. Governor, was taking over as minority leader from Sen. Johnny Ellis, who is recovering from cancer and other health problems.

Huggins denied French’s request. Then this week, he denied a request from Senate Democrats to send Gov. Sean Parnell’s natural gas legislation for review to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Wielechowski is a member.

His reason? The lawmaker said it wasn’t necessary to send the bill to the judiciary committee because French is a lawyer and can review the legalities of the legislation as a member of the Natural Resources Committee.

Sound like inside baseball?

Democrats call it political hardball and worry that the governor’s natural gas legislation will be fast-tracked in the Legislature with little or no review.

Republicans have said such committee decisions are Huggins’ prerogative as Senate president. They credit him for being the adult in the room, focused on keeping the legislative process moving efficiently.

Democrats consider Wielechowski one of the most knowledgeable lawmakers on oil and gas issues and believe he is being squelched.

Wielechowski is frustrated — yet undeterred — in playing the watchdog role.

“I guess I don’t, sort of, kiss the ring. I just speak my mind,” Wielechowski said. “I’ve been through the oil and gas wars for the last eight years.”

The Anchorage Democrat has also been one of the minority’s most vocal opponents of SB 21, oil tax reform legislation that reduced taxes for the industry. He’s also actively fighting for repeal of the law in a ballot initiative, so it’s understandable why Republicans aren’t particularly anxious to give him a forum on one of the key committees for the gas legislation.

Sen. Cathy Giessel, co-chair of the resources committee, believes Huggins made the right call when he refused to send the governor’s legislation to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“It is a resources and a fiscal issue, so those are the committees it gets referred to,” Giessel said.

She also said the majority is not silencing Wielechowski.

“We all get a vote. This bill will go to the floor,” Giessel said. “We will stand up, each individually and have an opportunity to debate and then at the end of the day, we’ll either push the red button or the green button.”

But Wielechowski said that as a committee member, he would have the opportunity to question industry executives, to push them to answer questions that are important to the state’s future.

So far, the discussion on the Alaska LNG Project, in which the state is seeking a 20-25 percent ownership stake, has been tightly controlled by the Parnell administration, partly because aspects of the proposed deal between the state, three oil and gas producers and a pipeline company are extremely complicated.

“This shouldn’t be about pushing a political agenda. It shouldn’t be about partisan politics. It shouldn’t be about personalities,” Wielechowski said. “It should be about doing what’s best for Alaska. And the way you get there is by having diametrically opposing views and letting them duke it out. That’s what democracy is all about.”

Giessel said there will be checks and balances in the process because lawmakers will utilize consultants who work for the Legislature.

“We sort of have that dueling consultant set-up, where one side will say this and then our side will either confirm or contest.”

There are some Senate Republicans who don’t always agree with Wielechowski’s views, but wonder if it would be better for the Senate to utilize his expertise because it would help the majority better defend the positions it takes or possibly help them avoid a pitfall.

Wielechowski doesn’t plan on being a “wallflower.” He said he will continue to follow hearings closely and remain as active as possible.

“They can keep me off the committee, but they can’t kill my voice,” Wielechowski said.

The bookshelves in his office are filled with big binders of information about gas line projects from both then and now — all within arm’s reach.

Wielechowski said he thinks it’s a mistake for the Senate president to withhold the governor’s legislation from the Judiciary Committee because every major piece of oil and gas legislation has undergone a review by the committee, including SB 21.

In the meantime, on the House side, Republican leaders promise the Alaska LNG Project will get a thorough vetting.

“It’s not just the Democrats,” said House Speaker Mike Chenault. “I think everyone in this room and everyone in this building has some concern on making sure Alaska gets the right deal put together.”

“All of us would love to have a gas pipeline, but not at any cost,” Chenault said.

Both Democrats and Republicans alike acknowledge the costs to the state could be great, because the decisions made today will affect Alaskans for generations.

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