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Palin, Parnell at odds over dueling oil-tax laws, but whose side does she help?

Alex DeMarban

Former Gov. Sarah Palin has sprung back into Alaska politics after a long hiatus, weighing in on her landmark oil-tax legislation, which voters will soon consider reinstating. In the process, she's taking jabs at her replacement, Gov. Sean Parnell, and the lawmakers she says let “Big Oil” regain control of the Alaska political process.   

Palin, who hiked taxes on the state’s oil producers in 2007 with Alaska’s Clear and Equitable Share, reminds listeners in a chatty 18-minute video on her new TV channel not to be “suckered” “bamboozled” and “buffaloed” by the likes of ExxonMobil and other oil companies yet again.

In an emailed statement, Parnell’s office replied that his oil-tax legislation, Senate Bill 21 or the More Alaska Production Act, is already working, while ACES proved a failure.

Sen. Kevin Meyer, a ConocoPhillips employee who voted in support of SB 21, said Palin is “out of touch with Alaska” after quitting the governor’s office in 2009 to make her mark on the national scene.   

“I don’t get too concerned about what she says anymore,” said Meyer.

Others believe Palin’s support for ACES and the repeal effort -- she’s also voiced her opinion in Alaska Dispatch News and on radio -- will provide at least a small boost for the campaign trying to overturn the new production tax.

“The more people who tell the truth against the $13 million oil-funded misinformation campaign, the better,” said repeal supporter Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, referring to the massive spending by the oil companies to defeat the repeal referendum that will be voted on Tuesday.

In her video -- “Securing Alaska’s Future to Secure Our Nation” -- Palin recounts the corruption among state lawmakers and oilfield services company VECO that led to the passage of ACES. She said experts hired by the state during her administration reported that Alaska had been giving away its resources for years and had been taken advantage of by the oil industry.

Palin says ACES worked, leading to increased North Slope exploration and competition, and allowing the state to save large chunks of money to forward-fund education, address concerns over Alaska’s pension liability, and begin moving the state away from federal dependence.  

But lawmakers ditched ACES when MAPA -- introduced by Palin's successor -- passed in 2013. “It only took six years for Big Oil to retain control,” she said.

“They got control of the narrative again and that huge influence in the governor’s office, and ultimately both houses of the Legislature. The result? ACES out the window,” she says, throwing a thumb over her shoulder.   

Without naming names, Palin says an “oil-friendly administration” and lawmakers, some employed by Big Oil, helped pass SB 21. “Some were workers for Big Oil, some were lobbyists -- that’s what they’d done,” Palin said.

Parnell, who introduced SB 21, served as a lobbyist for ConocoPhillips before he became Palin’s running mate in 2006.

Meyer and fellow Republican Sen. Peter Micciche played key roles voting for SB 21, which passed the Senate by a single vote and went into effect this year. Both are employed by Conoco, one of the biggest beneficiaries of the law.  

“Are we really going to be suckered again by Big Oil and some of the crony capitalists with their hands in all this?” Palin asks.

Palin did not return a phone call seeking comment for this article. Micciche also did not reply to a request for an interview.  

Asked to respond to the attacks, Parnell’s office said, “Gov. Palin is entitled to her opinion. But facts are facts.”

Parnell spokesperson Sharon Leighow said in an emailed statement that oil production is rebounding under MAPA, with new rigs being added to the North Slope while $8 billion in new investments has “begun” to flow back into the economy.

Under ACES, the email said:

• Oil production dropped yearly, even with record oil prices, and Alaska levels slipped to fourth among oil-producing states.
• Taxes varied wildly by the month, creating an unstable business climate.  
• ACES put Alaskans at risk of no tax revenue at low oil prices.

Meanwhile, under current oil prices, the two laws bring in about the same tax revenue, the statement said. “Results matter, slogans don’t.”   

Meyer said Palin likely won’t have much effect on the referendum. “She quit Alaska, in my opinion,” he said. “I voted for her for a four-year term and she left” early to make money from writing books and her role as a Fox pundit.  

That’s all well and good, but she lost touch with Alaskans, he said. “Now she’s back and is trying to profit by having her own TV show,” capitalizing on an issue that’s old news.

Meyer believes that people planning to vote yes will “say ‘Right on,’” when they hear Palin express support for ACES. But those planning to vote against the repeal will consider the source, Meyer said.  

“She’s trying to protect ACES,” he said. “That’s probably the last big thing she did in her short term. So yeah, she wants to keep it, but I hope people will listen to the labor unions, small businesses and folks living as we are in the current economy who know ACES isn’t working and needs to be changed.”

Meyer added that he’s disclosed his employment at Conoco for years. A “citizen Legislature” will always have conflicts, with fishermen voting on fishing issues or labor union employees voting on issues affecting unions. That’s why, in practice, lawmakers are expected to vote on every issue, he said.

Willis Lyford, spokesman for Vote No on One, said Palin’s involvement will be a wash when the election rolls around. “She has supporters and detractors, so I’d suggest they’d probably cancel each other out,” he said.

Steve Haycox, professor emeritus of history at University of Alaska Anchorage, said Palin could help the repeal campaign by attracting undecided conservative voters from around the state as well as voters from the Mat-Su Valley where she lives.

Jerry McBeath, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said Palin’s influence is waning, but she might sway a few undecided voters to support the repeal. She won’t hurt the repeal side, he said.

“I don’t think people will vote against it because Sarah Palin is voting in favor of it,” McBeath said.

Gara said Palin is right when she says that investment rose under ACES and that the Parnell administration predicts oil production to fall sharply in the next decade, despite the passage of MAPA.

“Whatever Sarah Palin was on the national stage, she was good on oil and gas when she was governor,” he said.