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A house divided: Rancor helps Alaska's problems defeat Alaskans

Alice Rogoff
A message from the publisher of Alaska Dispatch News: Rancor and misunderstanding have marred this election season. But it doesn't have to be this way. No matter what happens on Aug. 19, Alaska has work to do. Loren Holmes photo

This election season is turning out to be one of the most crucial in Alaska's history. Some even call it “Statehood II” because to them, the fights over shares of resources and political self-determination recall battles that many thought were resolved.

In the early years of statehood, I’m told, most Alaskans thought of themselves as familiar with their neighbors, with their viewpoints and aspirations. Even if they didn't agree with one another, people at least agreed that building a young state would demand more of its residents, politically as well as physically. Disagreement was accepted; disrespect was discouraged.

Somehow, now it feels as if larger forces have crept into our mix and are magnifying our differences. We seem more polarized; our messages seem oversimplified and repetitive. Instead of engaging each other on big concepts, we hurl slogans back and forth and bypass real dialogue.

When we start calling each other “shills” or “lackeys,” or “Outsiders” and “un-Alaskan,” then that's where debate ends. And that's where Alaska's problems overcome Alaskans.

I sometimes wonder: Do Alaskans still share most values? Where do Alaskans' own values and other interests, whether government or industry, truly align?

Alaskan and oil-producing interests generally align in favor of more production, for instance, since we know oil is Alaska’s lifeblood. But we don't often engage in sophisticated, public discussion of the subtexts, the larger issues. And we haven’t agreed on an equitable way to permanently sever the oil from its constitutional owners, ourselves. So the campaign for the ballot initiative against the oil tax system known as the “More Alaska Production Act,” or SB 21, is at a fever pitch. Yet few of us are close students of tax policy. Outside money pouring in has not helped our understanding, and rancor has become the dominant feeling this election season. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Regardless of how the votes go in August, Alaska's legislature will still be debating oil taxes next session because of oil's importance to us. Whether we ever agree on what is an equitable way to tax oil being permanently severed from its constitutional owners, we will have to forge a consensus and move on, turning our attention to other long-term resource issues.

We must settle on an oil tax that works for Alaska the sovereign state, as well as for Alaska the society, and for its government, which depends in large measure on one major industry. We must ask ourselves: Is it healthy economically that the state has come to depend so much on one resource?

Shared understanding of the facts is the only certain way to move beyond fear, beyond rancor and demonizing the opposition, to recenter the state’s spending priorities for a different era, one of transition.

Familiarity has to lead to civil discussion, and informed discussion can identify new solutions. I have faith in that. Alaska Dispatch News is built on that belief. And because oil taxes are so large, complex and central to the health of Alaska, I think there's no better issue to test our belief.

With all of this in mind, Alaska Dispatch News plans to host several debates and forums to help make the choices more clear, on oil taxes and other ballot matters, including the race for U.S. Senate.

As an institution, as a newspaper, we won't tell you how to cast your votes. But we will seek answers to difficult questions and present what we find to the community. We will provide a home for balanced discussion and opinion, which we, under our own names, may weigh in on. You can do your part by following the conversations in the newspaper and online, and joining the discussion with your own thoughts.

We've partnered with KTVA to put on two debates at UAA's Wendy Williamson Auditorium: one on Aug. 10, among the Republican primary candidates for U.S. Senate, and another the next day, Aug. 11, on Ballot Measure 1, a referendum on the current oil tax system. Both events will run 7-9 p.m. and be shown streaming online and on television. The panelists discussing oil taxes will be Alaska Sen. Bill Wielechowski; state Rep. Mike Hawker; Jane Angvik; Kara Moriarty, president and CEO of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association; former state lawmaker Chancy Croft; and Andrew Halcro, president of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce.

We are also partnering with the UAA Seawolf Debate Program to present additional debate of Ballot Measure 1, moderated by UAA debate coach Steve Johnson. The panelists will be Chancy Croft; Sen. Wielechowski; Mark Hamilton, president emeritus of the University of Alaska; and Doug Smith, CEO of Little Red Services. The debate will run from 5:30 to 7 p.m. on Aug. 12 at Bear Tooth Theatrepub. Tickets are $15, and are available at the Bear Tooth box office or online at beartooththeatre.net. Proceeds will support the UAA Seawolf Debate Program.

This is the start of conversations we hope to have with you and provide a home to for a very long time. Thank you for allowing us into your thoughts, and thank you for caring enough about Alaska to share your own.

It has been many years since statehood, and our state is not quite so young. But at the end of the day, Alaskans are still all in this together. And I hope we'll never outgrow the tenacity it takes to resolve our disagreements with respect, to keep building this place we all treasure.

Alice Rogoff is publisher of Alaska Dispatch News.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.