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Sen. Wielechowski: Re-evaluating AGIA only prudent

In a recent commentary, Andrew Halcro engages in the unfortunate politics of personal attack and states that Americans are "frustrated and angry" with legislators who have the courage to stand up for the people against powerful special interests. Closer to reality, I believe people are fed up with politicians who choose to represent wealthy special interests over the people, Wall Street over Main Street, billionaires over Medicare recipients.

I would respectfully suggest that Mr. Halcro's take on the American political pulse is off base, but hardly surprising considering his own legislative record, one most Alaskans would likely find to be quite out of touch. A decade ago, rather than attempt to get our fair share from the oil companies who were paying zero production taxes on the vast majority of oil fields on the North Slope, Mr. Halcro led the charge in the Legislature to raid the Permanent Fund, impose a regressive state income tax and a state sales tax. I don't have anything against oil companies – it's their job to make money for their shareholders, and they are very good at it. But the oil companies have plenty of lobbyists in Juneau, and I don't think they need any more in the Legislature.

On February 11, 2002, Mr. Halcro pushed another tax – a head tax – on all Alaskan workers. There was an exclusion in the bill to not tax children. Mr. Halcro objected. He was asked during a hearing if he wished "to sweep in the seven-year-old who delivers newspapers also." He replied, "If they get a check from an employer, I would say yes." I think most Alaskans would be "frustrated and angry" to see politicians tax children so they could keep giving tax breaks to oil companies.

Out of office, Mr. Halcro opposed our new oil tax reform bill – Alaska's Clear and Equitable Share – claiming it would hurt investment, jobs and exploration. The simple truth is that investment, jobs and exploration are at or near all-time highs under ACES, as are company profits. In fact, the oil companies have made about $20 billion in profits in the short time since ACES passed. Mr. Halcro also opposed the State taking away the leases at Pt. Thomson. Most Alaskans agreed that 30 years of inaction on those leases, and oil and gas warehousing by Exxon was too much. He was wrong again. We sued and Exxon has now begun developing Pt. Thomson.

So now Mr. Halcro takes issue with me for asking questions about the progress of the natural gas line. I want to get our natural gas to market, both to Alaskans for in-state use and for export to grow our economy. A natural gas pipeline will lead to more oil exploration, more jobs, and more state revenue needed to build our savings, fund our roads and infrastructure, and give Alaskans a future. After listening to all the testimony, the bi-partisan Alaska Gasline Inducement Act seemed the best option to get Alaskans' gas to market. I successfully pushed to ensure that the option of an all-Alaska route was included in the legislation, along with required low-cost off-take points for in-state gas.

The oil companies don't like AGIA and, by extension, neither does Mr. Halcro. It has strong provisions for Alaska hire, whereas half of new oil company hires today are non-residents (.pdf). It requires reasonable rates for independent oil companies to ship their gas, whereas for years the big three producers have charged extremely high rates that stifled competition on the North Slope. The oil companies would much rather go back to the gas line plan negotiated by Gov. Murkowski – the one Mr. Halcro championed – that would have locked in our old Veco-induced oil and gas tax rates for decades, and would have cost the state billions in massive tax giveaways; the plan that would have taken away our sovereignty.

Will AGIA work? We don't know just yet, but since it passed, we've had an open season with significant volumes of gas bid on by multiple parties. The technical, environmental and regulatory aspects of the project are moving along according to schedule, but commercial agreements have not yet been reached. The energy world has changed since we passed AGIA – with the explosion of shale gas and more liquefied natural gas on the market. It seems only prudent that we reevaluate whether the project is still in Alaska's best interests.

At the hearings a couple weeks ago, I asked what the holdup was. Is everyone negotiating in good faith? Has the world market changed such that any gas pipeline is no longer economic? Like any competent businessperson, you don't make a major policy decision and forget about it. You reevaluate things as the world changes. Mr. Halcro took issue with me for asking questions. I certainly hope that his family's Avis Rent-A-Car business isn't run that way.

Alaskans have grown tired of politicians who have become out of touch with the middle class and working families. The next time Mr. Halcro wonders aloud why Congress has an 18-percent approval rating, I would suggest he look at some of the policies he's pushed over the years.

By the way, there is one tax that Mr. Halcro fought – a tax on rental cars. Go figure.

Bill Wielechowski represents Anchorage residents of Mt. View, Muldoon and Russian Jack in the Alaska Senate. He is the vice chair of the Senate Resources Committee.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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