Editor's Note: The following list of issues was compiled by Alaska Dispatch staff in response to a simple question: What might Alaska lawmakers focus on alongside their seemingly perennial debate on oil taxes? For more on the list and why we think it important, read Thinking beyond the oil patch, linked below.
Invest in a deepwater Arctic port
What the Alaska Legislature needs more than anything, as it has for years now, is a change in thinking. Alaska is progressing nowhere -- to use an old Sarah Palin phrase -- as long as the Legislature remains mired in the idea that government investments should be all things to all people.
That's how we got to where we are today, with state funding divided between Arctic ports in Kotzebue and Nome, power for the future split between Susitna hydro and North Slope gas, highway development hung up between the roads all over the state people want fixed (who hasn't got one?) and possible roads to resources.
What the Legislature really needs to do in 2013 is settle on a project the state can pull off and get 'er done. That's not the $4.5 billion Susitna hydro project – certain to cost far more -- no matter how attractive that might look to Railbelt lawmakers. And it's not a $65 billion North Slope gas line, unless state officials can forge an alliance with the major oil producers to begin a project with enough benefit to them that they are willing to invest.
Nor is it a $500 million to $1 billion road to Juneau -- nor a road and ferry to Juneau, nor any other sort of overland connection to Juneau. A road to Juneau does nothing to further state development. Building a road to Juneau to make it easier for Alaskans to drive to the state capital might be the worst reason ever to build a road. Moving the capital would make far more sense, but that's already happening on its own.
Government is now in Anchorage. Juneau is the place the Legislature goes to meet with lobbyists for a few months every year. Sadly, the result of the latter is that we now waste state money to pick up dead moose along Alaska roadsides, something volunteers used to do for free in exchange for the meat. And we fund a lot of other nonsense when we ought to be spending state money with an eye toward future economic gains.
For an estimated $180 million, the state could have a port in Nome capable of serving ocean-going vessels. The project would benefit not only Nome but all of Northwest Alaska. Turning Nome into a trans-shipment point for supplies for surrounding villages and proposed mines would lower living and development costs for everyone in the region. And over the long term, all Alaskans could benefit, not only from the expansion of mining -- which a lot of Alaskans don't seem to like but which is one economically viable industry for the 49th state -- and oil development in the new frontier of Western Alaska.
But until Alaska legislators start thinking about Alaska -- instead of their district, their constituents and their re-election -- it ain't gonna happen.
-- Craig Medred
Make intelligent choices, quoth the Raven
Alaska's state bird is the willow ptarmigan. Ptarmigan are well-adapted to our northern climate. They taste good. And that's about all the approbation they deserve.
At least Alaska didn't pick the western meadowlark or cardinal as its state bird -- like 13 other states. At least we didn't pick an introduced exotic – the ring-necked pheasant – like South Dakota.
But we can do better, and it wouldn't take much for the 28th Legislature to make a change for the better.
Among the most intelligent of birds, ravens are lab-certified to be smarter than cats. They have a sense of humor, which is more than I can say for the bird-brains who nominated the snow chicken as our state bird. And ravens are found in all parts of the state in all seasons, something no other bird can claim.
Willow ptarmigan became the official bird of the Territory of Alaska in 1955 following a contest conducted by the Territorial Department of Education and the Alaska Native Service.
Ravens were in the running but ptarmigan received the most votes. Yes, the territorial legislature relinquished its lawmaking authority to schoolchildren.
Alaska has long since ceased to be a territory. I'm no constitutional scholar, but a "territorial bird" is not the same as a "state bird." Our constitution allowed all territorial laws in force at statehood to continue; however, the framers saw fit to specify that the territorial seal and flag would become the state seal and flag. No mention of state birds.
So do we have a state bird or not? If we do, and if it's the willow ptarmigan, the Legislature should stuff that bird in the game bag and grant the raven its just desserts.
The ptarmigan lobby will object. Fortunately, any territorial law continued at statehood may be changed by public initiative. We Alaskans don't need legislative action on this one. Any raven lunatic can start circulating a petition today, allowing the raven its rightful place among these official state critters:
Vanity plates that work for Alaska
It's no secret. We Alaskans love our specialty license plates. Numerous options exist to make personal statements with the official space on our front and rear bumpers, whether it be a clever motto or anything from college spirit to amateur radio call letters. Did you finish the Iditarod sled dog race? Are you a Freemason? There's an Alaska license plate for you.
Dozens of commemorative license plate options exist for qualified Alaskans to express a point of pride or identity through a theater of military service, unit insignia, or a citation or other honor. And starting on Jan. 1, 2012, thanks to the painstaking work of the 27th Alaska Legislature, a law took effect that established even more individualized license plate choices.
Now Alaskans can commemorate the NRA, proclaim trust in God, raise breast cancer awareness, and express a sentiment from either side of the abortion debate (though a plate for just one side is available now).
A few of the commemorative plates raise money for aid groups, but they are the exception. Most do nothing but express something personal that could just as easily – and at less public expense – be expressed by a sticker or window decal.
Therefore, this session, the Legislature should establish license plates that increase awareness and funding for efforts and services that are of interest to a larger number of Alaskans.
The possibilities for such functional commemorations are practically limitless. Suicide prevention? Domestic violence shelters? Law enforcement? Search and rescue? Habitat restoration? Fish hatcheries?
License plate funds needn't be limited to statewide causes. Local and borough projects could benefit, too. A new toll bridge? Winter air quality? Pebble mine? Glass recycling? Beach clean-up?
Lawmakers should start small by creating an Alaska State Parks license plate which includes use fees in its cost. Then regular park users could stop hassling with all those windshield stickers.
-- Scott Woodham
Production credits in lieu of Big Oil blank checks
When the governor's proposed $2 billion tax cut for oil companies came before the Legislature again last spring, the discussion centered on reducing the capital budget to make way for the massive income loss to the state treasury.
State budget director Karen Rehfeld testified that the plan could put the government in a hole, leaving a "budget shortfall of $615 million" in one year. By fiscal year 2018, the gap could reach $1 billion, she added, according to the Associated Press.
That raises tough questions, including how many of the hundreds of jobs created by healthy capital budgets in past years would evaporate. And what to slash? Should school construction get the axe? Village safe water projects? Efforts to lower in-state energy costs?
Fast forward to 2013. A newly elected, more Republican Legislature suggests that Gov. Sean Parnell's oil tax break is more likely than ever to pass this year. The third time could be the charm for the major oil companies.
Parnell, a former ConocoPhillips lobbyist, says the plan will reverse decades of falling Prudhoe Bay production. And that will yield more state revenue in the long run.
But let's face it, the plan provides no certainty that Exxon Mobil Corp., ConocoPhillips, and BP will spend that windfall here in Alaska. In fact, the companies themselves have helped sow those doubts.
Parnell has suggested Alaska saves too much money. Really? That's funny, considering the state doesn't have enough to cover the billions we owe current and former state employees and teachers promised state retirement plans. On top of that, virtually our only source of income -- oil -- is dwindling.
Surely there's a better way? There is, and it can still mean a generous break for the oil companies.
Why not substantially reimburse activities designed to lead to increased production? Instead of giving away money up front, why not pay BP, Conoco and Exxon, substantial sums after they've invested?
Just like the brilliant energy rebate program that has helped thousands of Alaskans slice energy costs and pollution, it could work like this: the oil companies bring in the receipts, an auditor makes sure the spending can lead to more oil, and the payback covers more than half the investment.
The oil companies would get the break they're clamoring for, and Alaskans would get the jobs and increased oil production we need.
-- Alex DeMarban
Think outside the oil patch and diversify Alaska's economy
Once more the Alaska lawmakers are headed to Juneau to talk oil taxes because they have no alternative. Oil dollars lubricate the machinery of government in the 49th state. Without multibillion dollar oil revenues, the engine seizes, and the state as we know it shuts down.
Alaska isn't going to get beyond this reality any time soon. But we are past the time to start thinking and talking about the post-oil future. Yes, oil will be with us for a long time yet. Oil is going to flow south from this state for decades upon decades into the future.
The problem is that there's going to be less and less of it, so much less that economist Scott Goldsmith is forecasting dire straits for the Alaska economy as soon as 2023 if something isn't done now.
In the short term, the state can spend less and save more to help fund a nest egg to compensate for declining oil revenues. In the mid- and long-term, the state can spend less and try to figure out ways to collect more to avoid tapping too deep into that nest egg.
The endless debate about oil taxes revolves in significant part around the latter economic reality.
On one side are those who think we should tax oil companies until they bleed, struggle and eventually leave. On the other side are those who think we should leave the companies with enough profit that they decide it wise to invest more into increasingly costly efforts to recover hard-to-get oil in Alaska's aging fields.
It is an important debate, but the Legislature should not be distracted into thinking oil taxes is the only topic worth discussion.
There is much more.
The state needs to be looking at ways to save money on day-to-day operating costs while searching for opportunities to invest money to grow Alaska. Pumping funds into programs to save moose, no matter how much we might all love the ungainly animals, isn't going to help build the economy. Neither are costly scientific adventurers to figure out why Alaska chinook salmon are disappearing at sea. It would be wonderful to know why those salmon are in decline, but there is nothing about marine survival the state can influence.
And at this point in time, lawmakers really need to be looking at those things they can influence for the better in the future.
Alaska's Age of Oil is destined to fade as surely as Alaska's Age of Gold. But there are always new opportunities for economic expansion. The world is changing, the Arctic more so than any other part of the globe.
The Arctic is becoming less and less a land of ice. Arctic shipping is on the horizon. So, too, Arctic oil and mineral development. Alaska needs a deepwater port in the Arctic as much as the U.S. needs a deepwater port in the Arctic. And as the costly grounding of Shell's Kulluk drill ship off Kodiak shows, it might not hurt to have a shipyard in-state as well. The city of Seward has been working toward that end in the hopes of Alaskanizing the state's offshore fisheries.
The Legislature should be thinking about ways to help Alaskanize other businesses, both big and small. Alaska can grow an economic identity of its own that's not wholly dependent on its status as an oil or seafood province.
-- Alaska Dispatch