On March 26, more than 8,000 Alaskans took hours out of their day to crowd together in schools and civic centers all across Alaska to caucus for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Even the town center in conservative Eagle River was overrun with Bernie Sanders supporters. The vibes inside the caucus halls were true to Bernie Sander's overall campaign ... bring on the revolution in our political system. One of the core themes of Sen. Sanders' campaign is to get big money out of politics and restore our democracy. On his campaign website he asks, "Are we prepared to take on the enormous economic and political power of the billionaire class, or do we continue to slide into economic and political oligarchy?" He then rightly points out that this is one of the most important questions of our time, and how we answer it will determine the future of our country.
Here in Alaska, as we struggle with closing the now estimated $4.1 billion deficit, we have the same question being played out, but instead of fighting Wall Street and super PACs, we are fighting the enormous economic and political power of Big Oil. Declaring "everything needs to be looked at and is on the table," the Republican-led majority continues to slash away at essential programs to working families even as they defend the oil tax credit program ushered in by SB 21, a credit program that requires the state to pay more to the industry than it will receive in production taxes.
Instead of addressing the oil tax reform sought by Gov. Bill Walker, which would have cut drilling credits by $400 million and increased taxes on oil companies by $100 million, the House Republican leadership gutted the governor's bill and opted to increase the state's subsidy for oil and gas drilling. In an article by the Juneau Empire (March 23) Rep. David Talerico, R-Healy, co-chairman of the House Resources Committee, spoke about the need to avoid harming future oil production -- "I think it's careful we navigate around here with a scalpel, not a machete."
According to the Walker administration, these oil tax credits could result in $825 million owed to oil companies by the end of the year. This is on top of the $500 million in tax credits owed them from last year. According to Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, in a report published March 26 by Alaska Dispatch News, "SB 21 is a complete failure. It leaves the state extremely exposed on the downside with no ability to make it up on the upside."
In railing against the inequity of Wall Street, Bernie Sanders says, "Wall Street cannot continue to be an island unto itself, gambling trillions in risky financial decisions while expecting the public to bail it out." In trying to close Alaska's fiscal gap, oil tax credits should not be an island unto themselves, gambling with no upside ability and expecting the public to make up the difference. As of right now, the public is paying the cost through overcrowded classrooms, college tuition hikes, reduced Alaska State Troopers, a crippled ferry system, reduction in services for seniors and the poor; the list goes on and on. Now, they want your Permanent Fund dividend to help fill the gap exacerbated by the tax credits to Alaska's oil and gas producers.
In an Alaska Dispatch News report entitled, "Alaska's general fund is paying the oil industry more than it's getting back," Brad Keithley, an oil and gas consultant and budget hawk explains lawmakers are defending that system because it's "their baby. It's their program. They believe they're doing good by supporting the industry," Keithley said. "But we can't afford it."
How do they get away with this? Simple answer. Big Oil has a disproportionately large influence over our political affairs. Just look at the last five years. In 2011 under Gov. Sean Parnell they eliminated the Alaska Coastal Management Program, continued on through the dismantling of the Senate bipartisan working group, and approved SB 21, the oil tax giveaway that passed by one vote in the Senate with the support of two senators in the employment of ConocoPhillips. Then when the citizens of Alaska struck back with an initiative to repeal SB 21, oil interests pumped out $13.7 million in campaign ads, outspending the repeal effort by almost 25 to 1. Can anyone doubt that big money is controlling our democracy?
According to the online Urban Dictionary, "feeling the Bern" means when one is enlightened by facts and logic from Bernie Sanders. To all those 8,000-plus Alaskans who gave Bernie Sanders a landslide victory in Alaska, if you're really feeling the Bern then bring it home. Demand oil tax credits be on the table. Call or email your legislators today and let them know if they want to reduce your PFD, they must do it only after they stop the bleeding of SB 21. Besides, there is just as much at stake, and it's a lot less effort than taking hours to stand in line.
Kate Troll is a member of the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly.
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