The public interest group Backbone on Thursday opened its public campaign to champion bipartisanship and elect state senators who would hold the line on oil taxes.
Taking turns at the podium in a conference room jammed with senior Republican and Democratic figures but no currently serving Republican legislators, speakers extolled an "Alaska First" message that praised the benefits of development but warned against the power of the oil industry.
"We want them to make lots of money, but not more than they need in order to meet their reasonable return requirements, especially when it can put our fiscal future in peril," said David Gottstein, an Anchorage businessman and investment adviser and a Backbone founder.
Backbone, an on-again, off-again informal organization once boosted by former governors and political foes Wally Hickel and Jay Hammond, stirred awake again this year as a response to political attacks on the Senate's bipartisan coalition over oil taxes.
"Too bad Wally wasn't here -- he would've loved it," said his widow, Ermalee, who attended the gathering at the Hotel Captain Cook. Her husband, during two terms as governor and as a private businessman, promoted the idea of "the owner state" -- Alaska sitting at the table as a tough-minded equal to the companies that want to extract its resources.
The Senate coalition's Republican and Democratic leaders and committee chairmen blocked an effort in the last session by Gov. Sean Parnell and House Republicans to cut up to $2 billion a year from oil production taxes. Proponents of the cuts said they were necessary to encourage industry to invest more money in Alaska to boost their production here, while opponents said it was nothing but a giveaway to a powerful industry that would beggar the state treasury.
Count Backbone among those opponents.
The 2012 election presents a rare opportunity to dramatically change the makeup of the state Senate, currently composed of 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats. In a normal election year, half the Senate faces election. This year, because of redistricting, all but one Senate seat will be before voters.
The 16-member coalition is guaranteed to lose at least one member -- two are facing off in Southeast -- and new district boundaries tilt in favor of Republicans over Democratic incumbents in several other races.
Though the Senate president and majority leader are Republicans, as is the co-chairman of the Finance Committee where Parnell's oil-tax measure ultimately died, Parnell has said the real power was in the hands of Democrats. He has been raising money to boost the number of Republicans in the Senate in hopes of at least diminishing the power of Democrats, if not eliminating them from the majority coalition altogether.
Five of the Senate Democrats attended the Backbone event Thursday. None of the six Republican members of the bipartisan coalition were there. Malcolm Roberts, Hickel's long-term aide, said they all were invited and he expected at least the Senate President, Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, to attend by phone, but he didn't.
One of the non-attendees was Sen. Lesil McGuire, an Anchorage Republican facing a primary opponent with Tea Party connections, Jeff Landfield. Landfield, like other Tea Party candidates, has criticized the Republican senators who joined the coalition as having abandoned Republican principles of low taxation and reducing government spending.
In an interview last week, McGuire said it was "silly" for candidates to ask for voter support because their opponents had joined a coalition. Yet at a Republican Party fund raiser at the Petroleum Club Monday that featured Parnell, McGuire sounded like she too was running against the coalition.
"There is a philosophical divide that sits in the Senate," she said in a recording of her speech made by Landfield. "I'm just simply here to say that I encourage all of you to stand behind us and help us bring a majority of Republicans or a majority of those who support our philosophy together."
Speaking specifically of Backbone, she told the Petroleum Club audience, "I want to tell you tonight, I'm not supporting them. I'm here tonight because this is my backbone committee, the Republican Party of Alaska, you here in this room, the businesses of Alaska, are my backbone committee."
McGuire didn't return numerous messages left by phone and text asking for a clarification.
Backbone members say the group won't back or oppose specific candidates, only encourage legislators to not give back taxes to the oil industry without specific guarantees in return that benefit the state. To that effect, they plan an advertising and public relations campaign. Individual members plan to be actively back or oppose candidates, they said.
Reach Richard Mauer at email@example.com or 257-4345.