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New Palin book 'Unlikely Liberal’ offers guide to Alaska politics

Alan Boraas

Former Anchorage Daily News opinion editor Matthew Zencey has written a definitive book on the Gov. Sarah Palin years titled, “Unlikely Liberal: Sarah Palin’s Curious Record as Alaska’s Governor,” now out from Potomac Books. Palin lovers won’t like it. There is no image adoration that obscures critical thinking.

Palin haters won’t like it either. Make no mistake, Zencey is professionally frank, but there are no mean comments about her family, intelligence, looks or other irrelevant spite.

“Unlikely Liberal” is an unexpected title for a book about Sarah Palin, who has rebranded herself as an anti-big government, anti-public spending, pro-oil development commentator appealing to Tea Party conservatives. Writing in clear, concise prose honed from more than 20 years of Daily News editorial writing, Zencey captures the enigma that is Sarah Palin and the astonishing fact that Tea Party conservatives could overlook the old Sarah in their embrace of the new Sarah.

An ACES must-read

One of the fundamentals of journalism, Zencey writes, is to focus on what politicians do, not what they say. That’s a good practice for all of us. Many Alaskans are still on Palin overload, thankful for the quieter days of Gov. Sean Parnell. But political amnesia is political suicide, and revisiting those years in the hands of a master writer is an exercise in understanding the present to make good decisions about the future; in this case, the very near future --
Zencey’s chapters on the history of Alaska’s Clear and Equitable Share are a must-read for those who want to make Alaska-first choices about the next verse in the saga of Alaska oil taxation.

Zencey reminds us of the origin of the Palin phenomena leading to the present level of taxation. Palin blew the whistle on Randy Reudrich’s use of public time on the Alaska Oil and Gas Commission to campaign for Republicans, establishing her rogue reputation. Gov. Frank Murkowski, meanwhile, had sunk to the lowest approval rating of any Alaska governor, forging unpopular initiatives like the jet, mixing zones and a deal with the oil industry to unconstitutionally give away Alaska’s tax authority in exchange for development of moribund North Slope gas.

Another spear in Alaska’s side was the oil industry-initiated corruption and bribery scandals, in the midst of which it engineered a production profits tax bringing in $800 million less per year than expected. On another front, Exxon and other pipeline owners manipulated tax reporting, costing the state upwards of $10 billion.

Progressive, bipartisan, Alaska-focused

Charming, energetic and hugely popular, Zencey describes Sarah Palin’s election as a mandate for reform, resulting in some of the most significant legislation in statehood history: ACES and the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act. Zencey points out that ACES oil taxation put a billion dollars a year in Alaska’s coffers.

Consequently, while virtually every other state was feeling the bite of one of our country’s worst economic crises, Alaska’s fiscal budget, and its oil industry, has thrived. While many believe ACES to be of great benefit to Alaska, AGIA is another matter. Zencey describes AGIA’s novel approach of moving natural gas to market by significantly subsidizing a large-diameter, Canada-route pipeline in return for progress toward its construction. Palin’s highly regarded advisors, Tom Irwin, Marty Rutherford and Pat Galvin, crunched the numbers and concluded that only a perfect storm of economic conditions would render AGIA unworkable.

Fracking became that perfect storm. Unpredictably, the world is being saturated with natural gas, and Alaska’s expensive North Slope gas will not reach markets soon. More than an excellent team of natural resource experts helped Gov. Palin through the first years in office. Zencey points out that little could have been accomplished without the bipartisan coalition of Republican and Democratic legislators. Zencey portrays Palin’s role in this reform legislation as progressive, bipartisan, Alaska-focused and even liberal.

But after two years in office, a change occurred in Palin, precipitated by Troopergate and intensified by Palin’s attack-dog role to motivate the Republican “base” as the 2008 vice presidential candidate, and sealed by incessant ethics complaints — many frivolous, a few legitimate -- made possible by the very reforms she championed. Zencey asserts that not only Palin, but also Alaska, had changed. 
And now AGIA is as stagnant as the gas it was intended to move. The bipartisan coalition is gone, thanks to an intensive oil industry-backed election initiative to put oil tax-friendly people in the Legislature and, consequently, ACES faces revision if not full-scale dismantling. If you’d like to weigh in with historically formed opinions during the coming legislative tax battle, Matt Zencey’s book is an excellent homework assignment.

Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College. His story first appeared in the Homer Tribune. Used with permission.