Pat Forgey

JUNEAU -- The big oil companies that plan to produce and ship North Slope natural gas have agreed to pay $16.5 billion in property taxes on the huge project, but they'll pay them to the state instead of local governments, Revenue Commissioner Randy Hoffbeck said Wednesday. That payment, structured as payment in lieu of taxes, or PILT, will include $800 million in "impact" payments, mostly for communities along the pipeline route. The payments will be applied to costs before the $55 billion project begins producing liquefied natural gas for export from Cook Inlet. Reaching agreement on the property tax issue will make it easier to get a deal on a project and prevent future conflicts, Hoffbeck said. "In order to do the fiscal modeling for this project we needed to lock down some of these...Pat Forgey
JUNEAU -- Juneau's promoters say the Capitol will be ready to hold a special session of the Alaska Legislature this fall and is very nearly ready today after a summer full of work winds down. Rep. Cathy Munoz, R-Juneau, said that because special sessions require 30 days' notice, the multi-year renovation and seismic retrofit will be mostly done by the time the not-yet-called session begins. "Most of the work is wrapping up and we're getting very close to being done for the season," she said. There may be some inconveniences, such as a few legislative offices and small conference rooms being unavailable, but nothing that can't be worked around, she said. Gov. Bill Walker has said he intends to call a special session of the Legislature to discuss unspecified natural gas pipeline issues but...Pat Forgey
JUNEAU -- The North Slope Borough has become fabulously wealthy from taxes on the oil industry and its massive Prudhoe Bay infrastructure. In addition to subsidies of thousands of dollars per resident for the costs of water, sewer, lights and heat, the nation's northernmost municipality even has its own permanent fund. At about half a billion dollars, the borough's permanent fund is equal to the size of the Alaska Permanent Fund on a relative, per-person basis. But while a decline in the price of oil is hitting the state's budget hard and threatening to drive Alaska into a recession, the North Slope Borough is still sitting pretty. That's because the borough gets its revenue from property taxes on $18 billion worth of industry infrastructure there, not on taxes on income or profits or...Pat Forgey
JUNEAU -- The University of Alaska's new president, former telecommunications executive Jim Johnsen , will earn $325,000 per year on his five-year contract to lead the state's higher education system But he can also boost his salary by as much as $75,000 each year by meeting a series of goals the Board of Regents adopted as an extra incentive Friday while meeting in Juneau. "We structured these metrics so that he has to earn them, it's not a given," said Jo Heckman, the board's chair. "If he cannot produce what we're looking for, he doesn't get any of that," she said. Bonuses for performance have long been part of the business world and are being used increasingly in the public sector, Heckman said. That makes this a good time to adopt the bonus system, as Johnsen is coming directly from...Pat Forgey
JUNEAU -- Gov. Bill Walker wants a 5 percent cut to the state's higher education budget next year as Alaska continues to struggle with projected multibillion-dollar budget deficits. But some members of the University of Alaska Board of Regents say they should resist what they see as damaging cuts, which they fear might pave the way for the Legislature to make even bigger cuts. Meanwhile, others feared that a confrontational stance could result in even more drastic cuts. Meeting in Juneau this week, the 11-member board got its first look at new University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen's new budget that they'll revise and adopt in November. Board members didn't like what they heard and saw. "We just can't keep cutting ourselves into excellence. It just doesn't work," said board chair Jo...Pat Forgey
JUNEAU -- The state's new financial system, dubbed IRIS, is aimed at simplifying the payment of the state's bills and was even claimed to be a way to improve transparency about where the state is spending its money. But after one part of that project went live in July, the Integrated Resource Information System wound up disabling one of the state's existing transparency initiatives, the " Checkbook Online " website that posts spreadsheets listing state payments. State Department of Administration officials say they're working to restore public access to what was once available, even if they may be months away from the new transparency that was once promised. Spokesman Andy Mills said the department is "working on getting the information out of the new system and into the Online Checkbook...Pat Forgey
JUNEAU -- The Alaska Legislature has signed a contract for lawyers to take on Gov. Bill Walker's expansion of Medicaid, drawing criticism from some of its own members who had urged them to not continue after an early loss. The contracts signed Tuesday for up to $450,000 include a signing bonus of $100,000, said Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage. “I'm struggling to understand how Republican leadership has drifted so far from common sense, losing any sense of priority when it comes to serving the people of Alaska," Gardner said in a prepared statement Wednesday. The Legislative Council, the Legislature's operating arm, decided in August to sue Walker and his commissioner of Health and Social Services, Val Davidson, to block expansion, but failed to get an injunction before the state began...Pat Forgey
JUNEAU -- The state of Alaska was slow -- by just a day or two -- in providing Senior Benefits checks to low-income residents in September, but that was enough to throw a scare into some seniors who count on the extra income. "We really need that money," said 80-year-old Rita Thompson of Anchorage. "This is my food money, and for the things I pay bills for around the house," she said. Her check eventually came, but those who rely on the extra income provided by Senior Benefits may already be facing cuts this year, and there are hints that more cuts may be coming. The state's Senior Benefits program is the new version of the state's old Longevity Bonus program. The Longevity Bonus was eliminated by Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski more than a decade ago, but resurrected by Gov. Sarah Palin...Pat Forgey
JUNEAU -- Alaska legislators struggling with difficult decisions on budget cuts next session will have less help available from their non-partisan research staff, due to cuts the Legislature itself made quietly during the last session. A 40 percent cut to Legislative Research Services comes at a time when manager Chuck Burnham said he expects research requests to increase. "As I told those of us who are fortunate enough to be left here, we're basically all just going to have to work a lot harder," Burnham said. Last year the research staff responded to more than 500 requests, producing reports of varying levels of complexity, as well as answering additional phone or email questions that didn't require full reports, he said. Since the beginning of the fiscal year in July, the trimmed-down...Pat Forgey
JUNEAU -- The new boom industry in Skagway is tourism, providing the bulk of the jobs and at the height of the summer, regularly giving the big cruise port the lowest unemployment rate in the state. But tourism isn’t Skagway’s first boom. After the Klondike Gold Rush began in 1896, Skagway was the quintessential boom town. The miners and supplies that supported the gold fields flowed through Skagway and over White Pass into the Yukon. And on the Skagway docks, legendary con man Soapy Smith worked hard to separate returning prospectors from their gold before coming to a bloody end. Today, the visitors arrive at the docks on cruise ships and willingly hand over their money to hear about Soapy Smith and the rest of Skagway’s colorful history, and to ride one of the region’s top tourist...Pat Forgey