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Special Session: Looking Back May 2, 2012

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Another special session in the can, and there are two very different ways to look at it.

The first: The special session was an abject failure by all parties involved, and Alaska will suffer for it.

  • The Governor pushed a new, ill-conceived and very poorly researched oil tax bill that wasted everyone’s time. Then, just as abruptly, he pulled it from consideration, killing the subject of 80 percent of the legislature’s efforts this session. Not exactly a strong move, politically or otherwise.
  • Once the oil tax issue was off the table, the Senate took their toys and went home. This is a little more understandable, since realistically it was very unlikely that they could make any progress on either a) a new oil tax bill that they drafted themselves in the remainder of the special session, or b) House Speaker Chenault’s HB 9 bullet line bill, which was DOA in the Senate. That’s because, as a large-diameter gas line proponent said to me earlier this year, it would have been fantastically expensive, the gas wouldn’t have been any cheaper than existing options, it wouldn’t have spur lines to the communities (Fairbanks, interior villages) that need energy relief most, and it would take gas from a place that has gas to another place that has gas. Maybe that makes sense if you’re Mike Chenault and you want to insure against the possibility that the USGS, Buccaneer Energy, and Furie are all wrong about there being massive gas reserves in the Inlet, but it’s a hard sell to most other people, especially ones outside the Anchorage bowl who would see very little benefit. But back to the Senate – even if it was the right call to close up shop early, was there any good reason not to at least have a conversation beforehand with House leadership, just so they wouldn’t complain about you blindsiding them?
  • The House, after the Senate left them with nothing on the agenda, pouted for a few days and then decided to end the session, call a press conference where they trashed the Senate, then went home. Seems like they could have done that last Thursday without the five-day wait and the associated (estimated) $200,000 cost to taxpayers.

All right, so that’s the glass-half-empty perspective. Here’s the glass-half-full: All things considered, having come out of the session with the oil tax structure unchanged and no concrete gas line plans isn’t nearly the worst thing that could have happened. The oil tax cut that Gov. Parnell pushed, if passed, would have put the state deep into the red with no guarantee that production would ever pick up enough that we would enjoy the same kind of state revenues that we do now. I don’t think anyone’s really heartbroken it didn’t pass. And as to the gas line, what if the legislature had passed HB 9 (or something like it, any kind of North Slope to Cook Inlet bullet line bill) and then this summer Buccaneer’s and Furie’s estimates of at least a few trillion feet of gas in Cook Inlet are borne out? That doesn’t seem unlikely, and then we’ve potentially dumped a lot of money into something that is now completely purposeless and economically irrelevant.

I’m somewhere in between those two positions. I think everyone involved could have done their jobs better, but given the other possible scenarios, status quo seems okay – for now. Over the next several months we’ll get more data on the state of Alaska’s gas supply, world gas demand, and the nature of the Point Thomson settlement and whether a large-diameter gas line is really in the offing. That should do a lot to add clarity to the picture when things get rolling again in January.

Student Government: Valuable Experience or Sideshow? April 11, 2009

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Joe Blanchard prepares for an interview after winning a seat on the Fairbanks Borough Assembly.  Blanchard is a past president of the UAF student government, or ASUAF.

Joe Blanchard prepares for an interview after winning a seat on the Fairbanks Borough Assembly. Blanchard is a past president of the UAF student government, known as ASUAF.

Sorry for my absence over the course of the last month.  I’ve been sidelined for a variety of reasons, most of which have to do with reporting I’m doing on the student government at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.  I’ve been doing a series of stories for the UAF paper – the Sun Star – on the efforts of some members of the student senate to remove the student president.  The experience got me thinking about student government and its relation to “actual” politics.  Is it a jumping-off point where future politicians can get their feet wet, or is it a backwater where political science majors with no hope of a career in real politics can stroke their egos and hold rein over their own little corner of the universe?

More after the jump.

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Disclosure: UA Advocacy February 9, 2009

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I really should have mentioned this before, especially in the light of the Anna Fairclough story, but somehow I didn’t think to.

I have been selected by UAF’s student government (of which I am not a member) to take part in the University of Alaska’s advocacy efforts in Juneau.

The trip will take place later this month, and I plan to report on the process both here and for UAF’s weekly student newspaper, the Sun Star.  It should be an interesting trip for me, as I’ve never been to Juneau before.  It’s one thing to talk to legislators on the phone, and entirely another to talk to them in person.  I’ve heard it’s beautiful down there, and that they’ve been getting a ton of snow.  I’m excited.

In case you’re wondering what exactly we’re advocating for, the short answer is full funding for the university.  To expand a bit, we’ll be asking for increases in maintenance allocations (the governor’s budget only allocated $10 million of a requested $50 million for upkeep of existing facilities), funding for a life science research and teaching facility at UAF (which has been UA’s number one capital funding priority for at least five years and has thus far received no funding), funding for K-12 outreach programs (did you know that Alaska has the worst high-school-to-college matriculation rate of any state in the nation?), and a host of other budget issues related to education.

I don’t expect that this trip (for which the university will foot the bill) to substantially change my opinion on education issues- I’m already a pretty strong proponent of education funding, which is probably why I was selected to go- but I did think that anyone who reads this blog deserves to know about the trip.

The Fairclough Flap, And Why It Matters February 8, 2009

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I spent quite a bit of time chasing down the story on Rep. Anna Fairclough’s remarks about the University of Alaska and some of the views its students and faculty express.  I actually ended up speaking to all of the principal figures (except UA President, who is notoriously difficult to get ahold of… I guess there’s a reason he’s the highest-paid person in the state who has to disclose their salary), which is a testament to the accessibility of Alaska’s legislators.

Along the way, I found myself explaining the story many times in very simple terms to people who didn’t know the particulars, which was just about everybody.  What I found is that different people had different reactions, but there were a few common threads:

  • Just about every voting-age Alaskan, contrary to Rep. Fairclough’s assertion,  is acutely aware of the role that resource development plays in the state economy.
  • A lot of people, particularly conservative people, agree with Rep. Fairclough- not just about university students/faculty, but in general.  In some conservative circles, there’s a definite “love-it-or-get-out” sentiment with regard to development- that is, anyone who doesn’t support oil, gas, mining, and timber development shouldn’t get to share in the proceeds.
  • Many people I talked to seemed to focus on the development at the expense of the actual heart of the matter, which I see as being this: the reason this story blew up the way it did is that no matter how students feel or vote, there is something deeply wrong with making a link- even a speculative one- between political beliefs and education funding.  

Anna Fairclough touched that third rail, and although she probably won’t suffer much political consequence from it, she brought a dangerous idea out into the open: why not stifle your political enemies by cutting, or threatening to cut, their funding?

The issue is deeper than Fairclough on both sides of the political spectrum, and I feel like we’ll see more of it before we see less.  The trick is recognizing it when you see it, because it’s not always as obvious as, “So help me here in understanding how I should advocate funding more for an entire group that really doesn’t want to see development go forward?”

Are UA personnel anti-development? Should it matter? February 7, 2009

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In Tuesday’s State House Finance Committee meeting, Rep. Anna Fairclough (R-Eagle River) caused a stir when she asked University of Alaska President Mark Hamilton for help understanding why she should advocate funding the University when many students and staff oppose the development that provides the lion’s share of state revenue.

Fairclough is the chair of the UA Funding subcommittee, so many observers interpreted this as a sort of shot across the bow.  Fairclough denies that she meant the comments as a threat in any way.  I’ll write more on this soon, but for now, here’s a transcript of what Fairclough asked Hamilton:

Last year I had many passionate students come to my door and ask for support for the scholarship program that was out there- to support that.  And I had many passionate university instructors and staff from across the university.  And I found it amazing that there was a large disconnect in where the dollars from the state of Alaska comes from on a regular basis as far as the production of oil on the North Slope and how that is turned into revenue for the state of Alaska and in turn is invested in the university system.

  President Hamilton, if I asked university staff, the people who are educating our future leaders, if they support the Chukchi Sea development, Red Dog Mine, Pebble Mine, or any type of industry along those lines, a stereotypical response is that they are in opposition.  If I asked- or I did ask- I asked them when they came through the door, each different group- the students that were passionate- the same questions.  Whether they supported it, whether they thought their friends supported it. 

Predominantly, each of the student groups that came through said they opposed all the things that I just said- oil exploration, expansion… and they were concerned, in a very idealistic way, about our environment, which I greatly appreciated, but the question I ask you, is when you come to us asking for more dollars for the university and the system itself is creating- those that are engaged in the system may be creating an inability for us to provide those resources to you- what can I do to help clarify inside of that population that if you want more money, you can either choose- because I asked them if they wanted to tax themselves, too, and that wasn’t a good solution either. 

So help me here in understanding how I should advocate funding more for an entire group that really doesn’t want to see development go forward?

-Representative Anna Fairclough, 2/3/09

Monday Briefs December 8, 2008

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A few little items that didn’t really merit a post on their own:

  • The District 7 recount is scheduled for tomorrow.  Check here for news as it comes in.
  • The Sarah Palin clothing story resurfaced– the cost of the clothes is now up to $180,000, and the cost of her makeup was $110,000.  I really dislike this story- it feels so tabloid-ey. Even though I find the expenditure wasteful in the extreme and indicative of poor judgment, I’m not planning on bringing it up again unless someone brings charges or something.
  • A grand total of six Alaskans contributed to Obama’s transition fund.  One of them was my sister’s second grade teacher.  Alaska is a small place.
  • Ted Stevens has asked for a new trial in Alaska.  No clue if the request will be granted, but if it is, good luck finding an impartial jury here… at least that’s what Stevens is banking on, I’m sure.

Ballots Will Be Hand-Counted In District 7 Recount November 28, 2008

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I got a call Wednesday afternoon from Shannyn Moore, a fellow Alaska political blogger who is particularly concerned with election accountability and transparency.  We talked about a few different twists and turns in this year’s election, and ended up talking most about the still-unresolved race between Mike Kelly (R) and Karl Kassel (D) in House District 7.

As you may remember, Kelly leads Kassel by a single vote.  This one-vote advantage had somehow been maintained through a variety of improbable circumstances, and Shannyn wanted to know if I had any insight as to what exactly was going on.  The Division of Elections had posted a press release on their website in an attempt to explain the state of the race, but the document wasn’t exactly easy to follow.

After talking with Shannyn, I decided to head down to the Division of Elections to see if someone there could explain it more clearly.  I ended up talking to Shelly Growden, the state Election Systems Manager.  She was able to shed a little more light on the subject- here’s the timeline she gave me:

  1. After almost all votes were counted, Mike Kelly had a one-vote lead over Karl Kassel.
  2. After the final 49 absentee ballots were counted, Karl Kassel had a two-vote lead over Kelly- a three-vote swing.
  3. After all the ballots were counted, election officials in Juneau went about verifying the number of ballots cast in District 7 precincts, and found that in two cases, the number of ballots cast did not match the number of signatures in the election book.  The State Ballot Review Board recounted the ballots in these precincts (Farmer’s Loop and Goldstream #1) and found that there was no actual discrepancy between the number of ballots and the number of signatures, meaning that a few ballots were improperly fed to the machines in the initial count and were either counted twice or not counted at all.  The net result of the State Review Board’s limited recount was that Kelly netted a three-vote gain on Kassel, thus shifting the race back to its original one-vote margin in Kelly’s favor.

We’re obviously headed for a recount in this race, and the somewhat questionable accuracy of the machines (what with the double-counting and undercounting in the two precincts in question) led me to ask Growden if the Division of Elections is planning to do a hand count of the ballots come recount time.  She reassured me that the ballots will be recounted both by machine and by hand, and that despite the hand counting taking a while, they expect the recount to be completed in one day.  Needless to say, I was very happy to hear that they’ll be doing a hand count.

She also said that the recount will likely take place on the 5th of December, as it has to be 30 days after the election itself.  Mark your calendars, because that might be the day this year’s election finally ends.

District 7 Thriller: Conflicting Reports November 25, 2008

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UPDATE 11/26 9:49 AM: Got word late last night that apparently the Dems jumped the gun- the totals DID have Kassel up 2, but then the Div. of Elections discovered a counting error in a couple of precincts that swung the totals back, by an odd coincidence, to +1 for Kelly.  So that’s that.
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The Alaska Division of Elections reports that with all ballots counted (including the final 49 absentee ballots from overseas), Mike Kelly (R) still holds a one-vote lead over Karl Kassel (D) in the race for House District 7.

The Interior Democrats, however, sent out an email today stating that, “With all votes in District 7 counted, Karl Kassel is up by 2 votes over incumbent Mike Kelly.”

Clearly someone is wrong here, and I wouldn’t bet heavily against the Division of Elections.  Either way, we’re headed for a recount.

District 7 Marathon: Done Before Christmas. Probably. November 21, 2008

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Apparently the final votes have come in for the Mike Kelly/Karl Kassel slugfest in House District 7.  Forty-nine overseas absentee ballots arrived by Wednesday’s deadline; those ballots will be counted Monday in Juneau.  After that happens, there will be a recount in December.  After the recount, the race will theoretically be over, providing that the losing party doesn’t entertain legal options in an effort to challenge the outcome.  I see that as unlikely.

Dermot Cole has the story and more details here.

Chilly, With 100% Chance Of Recount November 18, 2008

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 I went in to the state building this afternoon in Fairbanks to see if they were done counting ballots for the day (they were- in fact, from what I could tell they may have finished all of the Fairbanks area on Monday).  On my way in, I happened to run into Karl Kassel, who as you may recall is behind in his race against Mike Kelly by one vote.  I italicized there because it’s still difficult for me to believe that I would ever see a race decided by one vote, even locally.

In any case, Kassel said he’s, “Hanging in there,” and although he didn’t tell me what his business in the state building had been, I would bet you a box of uncounted ballots that he was looking into the official process to get a recount started.  

There will be more news on the District 7 House race before this is all over with- that’s a promise.