All over Alaska Thursday, upset people chanted, waved signs, and rallied against Gov. Sean Parnell's oil tax cuts, a version of which is moving through the Legislature.
The events were organized or inspired by Backbone, a watchdog group that opposes the political influence of the oil industry.
Parnell said in a telephone interview that he wasn't going to back down and that oil tax cuts are essential to encouraging oil company investment and curbing a long decline in production.
Hundreds gathered in Juneau on the Capitol steps and on the street out front, cheering as Democratic state senators ripped a mock $5.5 billion check made out to Alaska's major oil producers.
Sen. Kevin Meyer, a Republican from Anchorage who co-chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said rallies are a near-daily occurrence in Juneau and he doesn't expect the anti-tax effort to influence legislators. "As far as I'm concerned, I don't think it helps or hurts," Meyer said.
In Anchorage, about 200 people protested across Fourth Avenue from the Legislative Information Office over Senate Bill 21, which would mean tax cuts of more than $1 billion a year. Their signs told their story: "Stop the Giveaway." "Stop Parnell." "SB 21 will bankrupt AK!" "SB will be the end of dividends."
Rallies also were happening in Fairbanks, Sitka, Homer, Eagle River and Dillingham, among others, said Malcolm Roberts, a longtime former aide to the late Gov. Wally Hickel and a Backbone leader who led the Anchorage protest.
But others support tax cuts, including a business-led group called Make Alaska Competitive Coalition that said Thursday a poll indicates that 56 percent of Alaskans favor changing the current tax structure.
In downtown Anchorage Thursday, the crowd was having none of that. There were college students and politicians, retirees and real estate agents, environmentalists and former lawmakers.
Roberts said that the oil tax measure was dreamed up by the three major oil producers, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and BP and "was being shoved down our throats by Gov. Sean Parnell, that nice young man with the mouth that smiles and the steely eyes."
Some called out not only Parnell, who once worked as a lawyer and a registered lobbyist for ConocoPhillips and its predecessor, but also two Republican senators who currently work for Conoco: Peter Micciche, who is superintendent of the company's liquefied natural gas plant in Nikiski, and Meyer, who deals with surplus property as its "investment recovery coordinator."
"Say NO to Conflict of Interest," one sign said. Roberts talked about the Senate's 11-9 vote to pass the oil tax cut bill and said later if it returns to the Senate, and Micciche and Meyer felt they must vote, they should vote "no" to preserve their integrity. It's now in the state House, which is proposing bigger oil tax cuts than the Senate.
A 2008 ethics advisory opinion sought by Meyer concluded he did not have a conflict of interest because he was a rank-and-file employee. Micciche has said he reviewed that opinion and believed it applied to his situation as well because of the nature of his work at the gas plant, though he is in management. He doesn't negotiate and isn't involved in the commercial end of ConocoPhillip's business, he has said.
Meyer said he didn't become a state senator to work on oil taxes and that the criticism "is more political than logical."
At the Anchorage rally, the crowd chanted to Roberts' prompts: "It's our oil!" "Stop the oil wealth giveway!"
Roberts even had them cheer words from the state Constitution, the part that says the state's natural resources are for "the maximum benefit of its people."
Businessman David Gottstein told the crowd the tax breaks "were a reckless and risky bet on hope." The state needs guarantees of new oil production in exchange for tax breaks, not tax breaks that extend to existing fields "for oil that would be produced anyway," he said. "That's simply crazy."
Katie Hurley, who was chief clerk at the state Constitutional Convention in 1955, said that when the document was written, regular people had a voice. "Don't underestimate the power of the people and don't underestimate your power."
Vic Fischer, a delegate to the convention, told the crowd that Alaska shouldn't be run for Exxon, BP and ConocoPhillips. The governor and legislators should make decisions for "the maximum benefit of the people."
"And if they can't do the job, we must throw them out!" he said.
Former state Rep. Harry Crawford told the group that if the tax cut measure passes, opponents should push a voter referendum to repeal it. He said the state needs to build its own natural gas pipeline and that the Legislature also should pass a bill to ensure small players can access North Slope oil and gas processing facilities.
Parnell said in a telephone interview Thursday that he didn't watch the Juneau rally. He and his wife, Sandy, had lunch at the governor's house then went for a walk on a rare sunny day, he said. His spokeswoman, Sharon Leighow, said she thought only about 150 people rallied there, not 300 or more as other observers said.
"I think they have every right to make their voices heard in the way that they are doing," Parnell said. "I also have the obligation to do what I think is right for Alaskans. And I think maximizing Alaskan opportunity through new production is the key to our future."
Reach Lisa Demer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4390.