Dermot Cole

A year and a half ago the University of Alaska Board of Regents voted to require all UA campuses to adopt the same schedule and to align basic course requirements. Both directives led to moaning and groaning from faculty members and administrators who did not see a need to change the way they do business. Five months after the regents acted, the president of the University of Alaska Anchorage faculty group reported that the “regents expressed anger at UA faculty for not moving forward quickly enough on implementation of the common calendar.” As well they should. The move to a common calendar should have been made years ago, but instead of making a decision in 2014, former UA President Pat Gamble took the task force route. The 11 members agreed that it was really hard to get everyone to...Dermot Cole
It’s time to take stock of state finances and recognize what needs to take place in 2016 -- nothing short of a complete overhaul will set things right. But I don’t think the message of our precarious financial position is sinking in just yet. Instead, we have people offering the usual suspect arguments as miracle cures. Cut the budget. Raise oil taxes. Raise mining taxes. Don’t touch my dividend. Tax somebody else. Bring back the income tax. Start a lottery. Stop the programs I don't like. Trouble is, the numbers are so overwhelming that the meaning of the math gets lost in the mix. The simple solutions would all help, but they won't solve the problem or head off a severe recession. If, in its wisdom, the Legislature agreed on the odd combination of doubling oil taxes and cutting...Dermot Cole
Brian O’Donoghue, a veteran journalist and professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, found himself in the uncomfortable position of answering questions instead of asking them in a confrontational session in Fairbanks Superior Court Tuesday. The questions and answers reflect a larger pattern of contradictory claims and points of view that have highlighted an unusual five-week hearing over whether the Fairbanks Four should be exonerated. The four men, convicted in the 1997 beating death of John Hartman, are asking Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle for a declaration of “actual innocence.” The hearing may wrap up this week, but the judge won't rule until he reviews the case record in detail, a massive undertaking. Three of the men listen daily by phone from jail, while one of them, Marvin...Dermot Cole
Generations of political leaders in Alaska have gone to their golden years declaring that a gas pipeline is “closer than ever before.” And it’s always been true. We don’t have a gas pipeline, so the construction of one must be closer today than yesterday. One added sign that we’re getting even closer comes from the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which has at long last set a date -- 2025 -- at which the gas reserves at Prudhoe Bay can start to be sold and shipped south by pipeline. That lines up with the schedule for the latest pipeline plan, the Alaska LNG line from the North Slope to Nikiski. As in comedy, the gas pipeline is all about timing. Remove large amounts of gas too soon and you reduce the amount of oil that can be pumped from the ground. Wait too long and the...Dermot Cole
The center of the legal effort to exonerate the men known as the Fairbanks Four rests on the claim that two of the “real killers” of young John Hartman have confessed. One of the men is William Holmes, 35, a former drug dealer now serving a double life sentence in California for murder. The other man is Jason Wallace, 34, serving 70 years in the Spring Creek jail for killing a 25-year-old woman with a hammer, and other crimes. As teenagers in Fairbanks, they were friends. As young men in their early 20s, they committed murder. It was part of a scheme to eliminate rivals and gain more control over the cocaine trade. Wallace later become the star witness against Holmes, so they don't have much good to say about each other. Both men are locked up and neither one is on trial in the landmark...Dermot Cole
In the early days of the Alaska oil boom, as the late Rep. Hugh Malone of Kenai once said, Alaska legislators found it easy to agree on appropriations. ''There was a sense that there was enough money to do everything,'' said Malone, an early champion of the Permanent Fund who later served as revenue commissioner. ''You didn't have to fight with anybody -- you just said yes." Malone knew there would never be enough money to do everything, though that illusion has been a recurrent theme in Alaska politics every time that oil prices have spiked, only to be followed by a fall. This time the cycle looks different. Oil production is down by 50 percent over the last 15 years, while oil production taxes are down by 95 percent since 2012, mainly because of the oil-price collapse. Alaska can either...Dermot Cole
The attorney wanted to know whether his client had a clear memory of exactly what he did and where he went in Fairbanks on Oct. 10-11, 1997. “It’s pretty clear,” said Marvin Roberts, testifying in Fairbanks Superior Court Monday. Attorney Bill Oberly asked why he could be so sure. “I’ve had about 18 years to think about it,” said Roberts. Until his release to a halfway house this past summer, Roberts had spent those 18 years behind bars, maintaining all the while that he is not a killer. The exchange took place Monday as an extraordinary court hearing entered its fourth week in Fairbanks , a closely watched proceeding that has raised troubling questions about justice in Alaska. Supporters of Roberts and the three other men known as the "Fairbanks Four" have crowded into the fifth-floor...Dermot Cole
This isn't Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average, but we've lived with the idea that most of the kids in Alaska are at least proficient on standardized tests. Not anymore. In what amounts to a startling change for Alaska public schools, new standardized tests taken by 70,000 students last spring present a far more pessimistic portrait about student achievement than we've seen in the past. The tests, taken by students in grades 3 through 10, are more difficult and the scores are lower. To the extent that this tells families their kids need to work harder and that teachers and schools need to demand more, it's a good thing. A more realistic definition of "proficiency" is long overdue. This is not so much an indictment of the public schools, as a recognition that a more...Dermot Cole
Revenues from the Alaska oil production tax have dropped 95 percent in the last three years, from $6 billion to about $300 million. With that collapse, brought on primarily by the reduction in oil prices to $50 per barrel, the state has to look to its largest renewable resource to pay some of its bills: investment earnings. This is more of a necessity than an option. As a first step, Gov. Bill Walker's administration is about to release plans to rebalance the state's financial portfolio and draw on Alaska Permanent Fund earnings . It will also require rebalancing Alaskans' attitudes about the purpose of the Permanent Fund, which will include its use to help support government operations. Why? Because the state is now spending $3 billion a year from its savings accounts, putting its...Dermot Cole
Some leading legislators remain in denial, but the state has no real choice but to enact a new plan to pay for government in 2016. The reasons are simple enough -- failing to develop a course forward will mean a decline in the state bond rating, greater damage to the Alaska economy and a shrunken state savings account that could vanish by 2018. Legislators who want to talk only about cutting the budget by more than $700 million -- on top of the $800 million or so cut this year -- aren’t facing up to the overwhelming scope of the problem or how this could put the state on even shakier ground. Cutting a few million here and there won’t be hard, but legislators can’t or won’t identify departments, programs, projects and services they want to stop that will add up to hundreds of millions in...Dermot Cole