Governor turns back on respect in oil tax debate

Michael Carey

Sean Parnell should follow his own maxim -- Choose Respect.

Choose Respect in his debate with the Senate over state oil taxes, which the governor insists are so burdensome they hinder exploration, limit development and cost Alaskans jobs.

Parnell, formerly Captain Zero, has re-cast himself as the tough guy in this drama. The role is easier for him to play with the North Slope producers, his fourth branch of government, advising him on the script, which has been stripped of the word negotiate.

The governor demands unconditional surrender. Senators, pass my oil-tax bill and no other. Parnell heralds his legislation as "meaningful," but the term "meaningful" is so shapeless, so tepid as to be meaningless. Invoking meaningful repeatedly, Parnell has written his own dictionary -- meaningful is whatever he says is necessary to cut taxes, streamline permitting, and spur new investment. Senate President Gary Stevens calls meaningful a $2 billion giveaway.

The governor's letter to Sen. Bert Stedman demanding the administration's version of oil-tax reform, now making the rounds on the Internet, illustrates what's wrong with his approach. Stedman is reluctant to accept the administration's bill. A letter designed to change his mind should have been built of persuasive prose. You do not persuade elected officials -- Stedman is after all co-chair of Senate Finance -- by pummeling them with grievances and disdain.

One shudders at what Emily Post, Amy Vanderbilt and the other arbiters of etiquette would make of a writer who, seeking the cooperation of someone of influence, begins his letter like this: "If today's Juneau Empire is to be believed, you panned meaningful tax reform and distracted the audience from the issue at hand, that of incentivizing new and significant oil production."

Which is worse? Leading with the smarmy suggestion (in the passive voice) the capital paper might not be a credible source of news? The accusation, without foundation beyond the passing reference to the Empire, the senator "panned" and "distracted" some unspecified "audience"? The dead cliché ("issue at hand")? Or the hapless "incentivizing," a buzz word the lazy use to avoid complex thought?

Parnell's tone is that of a third-rate headmaster chastising a willful school boy.

It wouldn't surprise me if Stedman, after reading the first sentence on the governor's letter-head stationery, skipped to the last page to see who signed it.

Sean Parnell doesn't seem to understand. Diplomacy is the grease that reduces political friction. Absent diplomacy, the governor runs the risk of personalizing the debate and hardening Senate opposition to his tax proposal. Senators will tolerate disagreement; they won't tolerate a governor who chooses disrespect.

Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News. E-mail,