Day 1: Legislature convenes with mixed emotions
Normally, the first day of the legislative session is reserved for pomp and circumstance, overflowing with hugs, smiles and goodwill. And there was plenty of that at the State Capitol on Tuesday as the 29th Legislature convened.
But just as the petals on the yellow-rose boutonnieres lawmakers wore on opening day will quickly fade, there were signs the cordiality will be short-lived.
Even before the Legislature officially gaveled in Tuesday, Senate Republican majority leaders had a blunt message for the new governor on natural gas. They want to know if he supports SB 138, legislation that created a framework for a state partnership with three major oil producers and TransCanada, a pipeline company.
“At this point, all we’ve seen is disassembling. Until we see a reassembling of something that makes sense to us, we’re going to have huge doubts,” said Senate Majority Leader John Coghill of Fairbanks.
Coghill believes the governor may have even caused damage to efforts to move the project forward. He says he’ll be paying close attention to Gov. Bill Walker’s speeches to the Legislature this week — his State of the State speech Wednesday night and his State of the Budget address Thursday.
“This is the first time we’re going to really see plans, nuts and bolts, the actual details of what the plan is. At this point, disassembling looks scary to us,” he said.
As an example of “disassembling,” Republican leaders pointed to the governor’s decision to remove three members from the board of the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation, the private state agency that oversees two major gas projects — the Alaska Liquefied Natural Gas Project, which would bring North Slope gas to Cook Inlet for export, and the Alaska Stand Alone Pipeline (ASAP), a smaller volume line, the fallback in case the larger LNG project doesn’t happen. ASAP would tap North Slope gas for in-state use.
Walker has questioned the need for the ASAP project as both redundant and too expensive. But Senate leaders defended it on Tuesday.
Sen. Charlie Huggins, the Senate rules chairman, said the governor should have consulted legislative leaders before making changes to the AGDC board.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s the Senate, or it’s the House, or the administration. When you start unilaterally doing things, without communicating, you’re going down a path not coordinated, will create suspicion, and will beg for answers,” Huggins said.
For Sen. Pete Kelly, co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, one of the big worries is that Walker may derail progress made so far the state’s LNG partnership, in which Exxon has begun development at Point Thomson and conducted fieldwork in Nikiski in search of a site to build an LNG plant.
Kelly says the Alaska LNG project is the state’s best hope for closing future billion-dollar budget gaps. He worries the Walker administration won’t meet the terms of the current agreement.
“Oh, my gosh. If they don’t produce on a gas line, if they fumble this ball, this state has problems like I don’t know how we’re going to fix,” Kelly said. “The governor has to step up to the plate. I’m not going to claim that he hasn’t. I’m going to give this guy the benefit of the doubt, because he’s a pretty sharp guy — and he’s got some good people. But this gas line has to happen. And it has to happen under specific timelines.”
Sen. Bill Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat who has been outspoken on energy issues, says there’s an obvious philosophical difference between the governor and Senate Republicans.
“That’s why voters elected him,” Wielechowski said.
“We haven’t had a single hearing yet. Let’s give him a chance to explain his positions,” Wielechowski said. “Nobody has a monopoly on knowing what’s going to happen in oil and gas markets. It’s wildly unpredictable. With oil and gas, you need to constantly reassess where you are because things change so quick.”
“I haven’t heard him say he was going to trash SB 138. I see him taking his time and being deliberate,” Wielechowski said.
Wielechowski compared Walker’s approach to former Gov. Sarah Palin, who was able to change the minds of a number of Republican lawmakers on oil and gas and pass legislation with their support.
No matter what the political party or philosophy, there is consensus that decisions on oil and gas this session are vital to the state’s future.
As Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott officiated during the Senate’s swearing-in ceremonies, he alluded to the importance of the work ahead.
“The deliberations that are made this session, [over] the course of your full session, is going to change Alaska’s history,” he told lawmakers.
The only question is whether the change is for the better or for worse.
Although the governor’s office says Walker was aware of the Senate majority leaders’ criticisms, he didn’t immediately respond. He may do so on Wednesday or Thursday night during his State of the State and State of the Budget speeches, which begin at 7 p.m.
KTVA CBS 11 will stream the two speeches on the web.