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Halcro takes a final look back at years of Alaska political blogging

Editor's Note: The following commentary is reprinted with permission from the blog of Andrew Halcro, one of the most-read political blogs in Alaska. In the latest entry, a retrospective, Halcro breaks one last story: He will cease writing his blog upon the New Year.



 

"Unfortunately, being right in politics gets you 50 cents and a phone call to someone who doesn't give a damn." 

-- Stated eloquently by my dear friend and political sage, Willis Lyford.

All doors must eventually close. When a door closes a window opens. If you don't close the window, you'll catch a cold.

If you catch a cold, you'll have to stand in line at the pharmacy to sign for Sudafed. The database they enter your name into will be used to make sure your not a meth lab proprietor, smurfing pharmacies around the greater Anchorage area. All because you wouldn't close the window.

Wait. That's brilliant!

You refuse to shut the window because it represents being trapped in the glitter of holiday commercialism. I smell a Golden Globe Award. Cut, print, check the gate, moving on.

Always cracking wise. Always biting. And always with the obscure pop culture references. Always. Always. Awesome. 

Honestly, who else works a movie line from Fast Times at Ridgemont High into a serious debate over oil-and-gas tax policies? Jeff Spicoli would suggest it's me, dude.

For almost the last six years, I've sat at this keyboard and have enjoyed typing a political blog that has set off more than its share of fierce public policy debates. For almost the last six years, my website has enjoyed millions of page views by a wide range of private and public organizations. For almost the last six years, readers like you, agree or disagree, have kept me hanging around. And I thank you all.

Some of you've probably have heard that I have accepted a new position as the president of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce. In doing so I am ceasing my blog on Jan. 1. Transparency, accountability and credibility require it. I would never want my personal political blog to ever be construed as the Chamber's views, so after this, it's arrivederci.

However there is still time for one more trip around the mulberry bush. One more run up the flagpole. One more worn-out cliché.

Clichés indeed.

Since April 2007 when I posted my first blog debating AGIA, I have been consistently writing about public policies. A majority of my blogs have been written about Alaska's resource development and fiscal policies. Many of them written with a hard bite. Many of them downright accusatory. 

Over the years I have also printed very clear predictions of every major story I've written about. That's why I love writing. It's hard to explain away your previously stated position.

However, calling any political shot is fraught with risks almost as much as pointing to the scoreboard when you're right. As the above-mentioned Professor Lyford's words of political wisdom hold, the problem with keeping score in politics is that you can never win. You always lose with the same one, two punch.

It goes like this. You see fatal flaws in proposed public polices and point them out, and Boom! ... You're a sore loser. Then when the fatal flaws you had initially predicted start being realized, and Kapow! ... You're a smartass. Talk about being damned if you do and damned if you don't.

Suddenly the narrative becomes about you instead of the issue. Rarely is the focus on the perpetrators and the costly consequences of their public policy blunders. Misdirection and blame replace honesty and accountability confusing the public and making victims out of offenders. 

As Emerson would say, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

But as many of my regular readers know, I keep score. I like to keep score because I like to see if my projections are right or wrong. And since this is my last blog for the foreseeable future, I'm taking one last glance at the scoreboard as I walk off the field. 

The following are the top seven stories I've covered over the last few years. Each one with remarkably similar narratives and fiscal outcomes. A thread of blogs that represents almost six years, where cheesy cliches where inextricably linked with public policies.

AGIA: Time is money (and we’re giving away both)

April 2007 

The Alaska Gasline Inducement Act was the reason I began this blog. The proposal was to try force the three largest oil & gas companies in the world, to build a natural gas pipeline that would have been the most expensively financed oil & gas project in United States history.

The state drew up a list of demands and then tried to shove them in the drop boxes at BP, Conoco and Exxon. Then they went out and offered $500 million worth of incentives to TransCanada. The same TransCanada that warned the state against making the same deal a year earlier.

What I said: In my first blog I predicted that AGIA wouldn't work because it ignored critical fiscal and legal issues.

What happened: Five years later AGIA is on life support, only breathing because the state is still paying for ninety percent of TransCanada's expenses. The route has been changed, the conditions have been changed, but one thing hasn't; AGIA failed because it ignored critical fiscal and legal realities.

Why this was so bad: Not only did it lock us into a partner whose chance of success is minuscule, but it was done by people who had an intense dislike for the companies that would pay for the project. Their white hot anger blinded them to all sensible opposition and did little to bring a serious natural gas pipeline to fruition, all while wasting valuable time and money.

Mat-Maid: Money is the root of all evil (and dairy failures)

June 2007

After the Creamery Board recommended to shut down the state's iconic dairy to stem financial losses, the governor overruled the decision by firing the entire board and replacing them with her neighbors and cronies.

What I said: In a July blog I predicted that Matanuska Maid would continue hemorrhaging cash and suffer massive losses due to simple economics.

What happened: In September, two months after the governor's cronies took over the day to day management of Matanuska Maid, the company announced $300,000 in losses for August. The single biggest monthly loss in the dairy's history. 

Why this was so bad: The governor sullied the reputations of a lot of people during her 2007 summer dairy queen campaign. It also set the stage for brutal cronyism resulting in highly questionable loan practices. 

ACES: Absence makes the heart grow fonder (and oil production scarce) 

November 2007

In the fall of 2007, the governor introduced a new tax proposal (ACES) on the oil-and-gas industry. Her original plan raised taxes about $900 million, but by the time it passed a 36-hour amendment orgy in the State Senate the tax increase was 2.5 times the original proposal. 

Her anti-oil commissioners dismissed the threats of decreased investment by arguing that taxes didn't drive oil company investment decisions. Upon signing the bill, even though the tax rates had been more than doubled what she originally proposed, the governor said she thought the final bill was similar enough to what she proposed.  

What I wrote: In December 2007 when the governor signed ACES, I predicted the new tax regime, especially the progressivity component, would hurt future investments. 

What happened: Over the last five years, investments in new production capabilities have been decreasing due to the high marginal tax rates. Every oil tax consultant entertained by the legislature has agreed that the current marginal tax rates are a barrier to production.

Meanwhile the oil flow in the pipeline is decreasing and the state is granting hundreds of million in tax credits every year to new independent explorers who have yet to produce one barrel of oil.

After seeing how the tax hike was negatively impacting investment, Governor Sean Parnell, a former supporter of ACES, proposed a complete reform to reverse the flight of production investments.  

Why this is so bad: It's put the state years behind. Even the independent explorers have said the only ones who can move the needle on oil production are the majors. Since typical production evolution takes anywhere from five to seven years, much of the new oil today is from investments green lighted before ACES was adopted.

Meantime, the Department of Revenue projects that fifty percent of all oil production in 2020 is dependent on investments that have yet to made.The production tax rate hike in 2007 has been a proven investment killer and will remain as such without oil tax reform.

One final point.  

Months after the passage of ACES, the same Commissioner who wholeheartedly embraced every oil production tax increase, predicted production investment would hold and the state's oil production levels wouldn't decline to 600,000 barrels per day until 2022.

This year the North Slope produced a little less than 600,000 barrels per day. So we beat the post ACES decline curve by ten years to the bad side.

Troopergate: Act in haste, repent at leisure (and blame at will)

July 2008

While investigating why Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan was abruptly fired, I came across a story much bigger than a simple disagreement between a cabinet member and their boss.

In this case, the governor was attempting to use her official position to get her former brother in-law, fired from his job as a State Trooper. When pressure was brought to bear on Monegan and he refused, he was sacked. 

What I said: I was the first one to break the story that would go on to be called "Troopergate." After interviews, confidential sources and documented backgrounds, I wrote about the governor's clear abuse of power which set off a media explosion and a legislative investigation.

What happened. The story gained nationwide exposure when the governor was picked to be the GOP vice presidential nominee. The governor's brother in law, Mike Wooten, quickly came under intense criticism as two separate investigations looking into the allegations of abuse of power churned on. 

In the end it was a split decision.

One investigator found her to have abused her power, and the other investigator cleared her. One investigator found she abused her power by allowing her husband to continue pressuring Monegan, and the other investigator found that her husband was a private citizen and had the right to lobby a government official.

But the tiebreaker wouldn't come until years later, and from an unlikely source.

Frank Bailey, the governor's right-hand man, who was thrust into the center of the Troopergate scandal after a recording surfaced of him pressuring a State Trooper Captain to can Wooten, published a tell-all tale.

Here's what Bailey said in his memoir about the reporting on Troopergate: "While I disliked Andrew Halcro, the guy nailed the truth and no one -- including the always Palin-bashing, persistently misguided Dan Fagan believed him."

Why was this so bad: It wasn't. The unconditional confirmation that what I was alleging was correct meant pure vindication for Walt Monegan.

Again, from Frank Bailey's memoir confirming that Monegan was sandbagged: "Hitting the nail hard and true, Andy summed up by writing ... Monegan said no to firing a State Trooper who had divorced Governor Palin's sister."

Walt Monegan was a dedicated public servant who deserved much better. Unfortunately he served at the whim of high schoolers with a grudge. 

The governor's resignation: Six of one, half dozen the other (and it's not quitting if you just stop) 

April 2009

In one of my last blogs before taking a break in the summer of 2009, I predicted that the governor would not seek re-election. It was clear her attention was elsewhere and her economic policies were on a course to crash and burn by election day 2010. 

What I said: "Given the risk exposure Palin faces in a second term, I predict she will bail out and leave the next governor to clean up her mess," I wrote on April 27, 2009. 

What happened: Just nine weeks later, the governor held a hastily called press conference to announce she was resigning and then proceeded to give three weeks notice.

Incoming Governor Sean Parnell would have to begin cleaning up her mess. Nuetering AGIA. Attempting to reverse her ACES. Attempting to recall a million dollars in defaulted dairy loans made under her watch.

Why it's bad: Her short-sighted economic decisions, which were adopted with much fanfare and without sound reasoning, weren't products of objective economic thought. They were products of lawmakers looking to get even and angry commissioners who leveraged a governor's popularity to peddle economic fairytales.

The time and money the state has wasted on cheerleading consultants, reimbursements for pipelines to nowhere, and baseless litigation is staggering. Imagine how much further Exxon would be at Point Thomson if only the previous Resources Commissioner hadn't been so alarmingly hostile and grossly incompetent.  

Joe Miller: Do as I say, not as I do. (and sue the press after they find out you're an admitted liar and fraud)  

June 2010

The 2010 Republican primary for United States Senate featured incumbent Lisa Murkowski versus challenger Joe Miller. After working from the center her last six years in Washington D.C., Murkowski was a prime target for the radically right Tea Party.

In late June, I published a blog that first asked the question why Miller left seven years as a Fairbanks Borough attorney off his resume? My blog began a frenzy of public disclosure requests for Miller's personnel files. Miller refused to grant the Borough blanket approval, instead opting to screen emails and memos, leaving even more questions.

In the August primary, Miller pulled out a remarkable upset of Murkowski, after the Tea Party dumped millions in the race painting her as a left-wing liberal. A short time later Murkowski announced she would enter the general election race as a write-in candidate. 

Meanwhile, the media continued their suit against the Borough for full disclosure of Miller's employee file, under the freedom of information act. The argument was that Miller was campaigning for one of the highest offices in the land and the public's right to know trumped Miller's expectation of privacy.  

What I said: "Lets see how liar Joe does in a crowd. Me thinks not so well once Alaskans get to know the real Mr. Miller," I predicted on September 17.

What happened: Weeks later, the court would rule in favor of the media outlets and demanded the release of Miller's public emails. Emails that showed Miller admitting to being a liar, a cheat and a fraud. Emails that showed he was worried enough to think he'd get fired. Emails that showed why he was deathly afraid of the public ever finding out about his gross misconduct.

He would go on to handcuff a reporter and exhibit bizarre behavior every week leading up to the November election. At the end of the day, Murkowski would become the first women in American history to ever be elected to the United States Senate as a write in candidate.

Why this is so bad: It's not. In fact it was probably the most serious bullet the state has dodged in its political history. Even after the election his bizarre behavior continued to make that point.

Miller being Miller, even after a clear loss, challenged the write in votes and the election results. Then he appealed to the courts, until finally being told to sit down and shut up by a judge. But that didn't stop joltin' Joe.

He continued his litigious ways after the election by filing suit against the Fairbanks North State Borough, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner and Alaska Dispatch, accusing them of breaching his privacy rights. This after a judge had already ruled he had no right to privacy.

The bottom line was that Miller was suing the media for finding out he was an admitted liar, cheat and a fraud. He also drew me into the legal battle by naming me as a third-party witness. His lawyer tried to get me to reveal confidential sources I used to write the ripple blog that turned into waves of media outlets demanding Miller's public employee records.

Finally, after the court demanded Miller disclose who was paying his $160,000 in legal bills, he settled the case. Imagine. You pursue a lawsuit for sixteen months based on the quest for accountability, but as soon as the court orders you to be accountable you bail out.

Hey Joe, -- you -- that's my source.

(Excuse me, Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross, for I am not worthy.)

Valley dairy: Road to hell is paved with good intentions (and good indictments) 

November 2012

The Valley Dairy was an ill-conceived spin-off of the fatally wounded Matanuska Maid Dairy. In all, $1.6 million had been invested by state and federal agencies in the fledgling dairy, even though they had no business plan, no financial plan and no collateral commensurate with their liabilities.

In one instance the Valley Dairy was loaned money using cheese as collateral. Yes, cheese.

What I said: On Nov. 18, I leaned on confidential sources to predict that the Valley Dairy was on its last cow, the state would be foreclosing on their one million note, and one of the co-owners was under investigation by the FBI.

What happened: Weeks later, the state moved forward to recall the Valley Dairy loans while the FBI and the United States Attorney's office announced a six count indictment against the co-owner of the Valley Dairy. On Dec. 27, the Valley Dairy announced it was closing for good.

Why this is bad: It takes money off the table for agriculture projects that actually have a chance of becoming self-sustainable. And equally as detrimental, it shows what blatant cronyism can do to taxpayers.

The state is on the hook for Valley Dairy's million-dollar loan default because the Agriculture Board members were all from Valley and had a vested interest in keeping the money-losing dairy open.

But the warning signs of imminent collapse were there far beyond my blog prediction.

Like the fact that months into their first state loans they were asking for more time to repay money and more money to borrow. Or the fact that they continued to beg at the Agriculture Board meetings for more cash while trying to use equipment they didn't own and $40,000 worth of cheese as collateral. 

But no one in power said a thing until the FBI and the repo man showed up. The $1.6 million bust represents the most expensive empty milk cartons ever made.

Some predictions I was wrong about

I predicted Mid-American would be the only viable bidder on AGIA and they'd quickly find it's a fools' errand. I was wrong. Instead it was Transcanada who was the only viable bidder and they've proven that AGIA is a fools' errand.  

I predicted Lisa Murkowski would beat Joe Miller by twenty points in the GOP primary. I was wrong. Joe Miller won by two points. But ... I then predicted Murkowski would beat Miller by six points in the general election and she ended up beating him by four and a half points. Murkowski lost the battle, but she won the war.

Over the last many years, we've covered a lot of ground. In the beginning I was chastised on blogs and letters to the editors by critics and cranks who labeled my public policy debates as sour grapes.

Today, with many of my economic predictions coming true, the critics and cranks have retreated into the shadows. Now more and more people I meet thank me for being the canary in the coal mine, but even so, no edgy blogs will ever replace the time and taxpayer money we've wasted during the last six years of chasing an ill wind.

A final look back... 

Much of the thanks about my blog content goes to my readers. Many were patient with me as I leaned on anonymous sources in gathering exclusive stories. As I gained trust I gathered more and more sources, which made it possible for me to step out on the limb more often.

One of my all-time favorite blog moments was when a former governor demanded to know how I found out about Matanuska Maid's record losses before the board found out. Just priceless.

While over the last many years I've been accused of having too strong of a bite in my blog posts, I admit that is absolutely true.

But after watching hundreds of millions in misspent government ventures, you'll have to forgive me a few temper tantrums. Witness enough policy decisions designed to stroke the egos of a few at the expense of taxpayers, and you eventually cross over into a irreversible cynicism.

For me it started back in 2000 when I was a state lawmaker.

I argued strongly against the Anchorage Airport Rail Depot because the preliminary economic feasibility results clearly made the case that it was an expensive loser. I predicted in an Anchorage Daily News op-ed in January of 2001, that the projections of year-round local riders to the airport were outlandish and the facility would be mothballed within years of opening.

But, what was most disheartening about arguing against this taxpayer boondoggle was that Congress had already approved the money. Even before any economic feasibility study had been completed. It was just a matter of spending the money, come hell or questionable economics.

$30 million in federal taxpayers' dollars and seven years later, the depot is mothballed except for a short summer season of cruise ship passengers. Not one local commuter ever used the rail depot.

This is why people despise government. They think they're electing Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith goes to Washington, instead they end up with Broderick Crawford in All the King's Men.  

This is also why my blogs about public policies and lawmakers have historically been edgy and sometimes inflammatory. It's frustration mixed with disbelief that we're making the same economic mistakes over and over again, and we know damn well what were doing.

I tell people all of the time when describing the frequent frustration of writing my blog; sometimes I feel like I'm screaming at the moon. But I don't tell them about how my neighbors call the cops long about the same time I start screaming.

In the end of it all, the words of the classic poet William Joel comes to my mind.

We didn't start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world's been turning
We didn't start the fire
No we didn't light it
But we tried to fight it

And tried to fight it we did. Many times successfully on these pages.

Now, where's my fifty cents and the phone? 

Cheers!

Andrew Halcro is the publisher of AndrewHalcro.com, a blog devoted to Alaska issues and politics, where this commentary first appeared. He is president of Halcro Strategies and Avis/Alaska Rent-A-Car, his family business. Halcro served in the Alaska House of Representatives from 1999 to 2003, and he ran for governor in 2006 as an Independent.

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