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Alaska politics roundup: Chinese pipeline deal stuck behind Great Wall as legislators fly to Houston for tax talks

The Alaska State Capitol on January 19, 2017. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

JUNEAU — The Alaska politics roundup went on hiatus for the special legislative session.

But now that the session is in the equivalent of a medically induced coma — with lawmakers meeting in brief "technical sessions" until time expires Tuesday — the roundup is back.

Here's some of the stuff that's happened in the world of Alaska government and politics in the past few weeks.

Where's Walker's gas pipeline agreement?

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker was in Asia last week for the signing of what he described as a historic deal with Chinese entities to advance development of Alaska's massive proposed liquefied natural gas project.

When the announcement was made, officials with Alaska's gas pipeline agency, the Alaska Gasline Development Corp., wouldn't release a copy of the deal itself, which they're calling a "joint development agreement."

Those officials said the text would be released this week. By Friday, however, it wasn't.

A spokeswoman for Walker, Grace Jang, said Friday that the agreement would be released next week instead.

"These are commercially sensitive documents," she said. "And we're coordinating with three other entities in China."

Meanwhile, the Alaska House Resources Committee has scheduled a hearing on the $43 billion project Dec. 4.

Lawmakers head to Houston for oil talks

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Andy Josephson and Sitka Republican Sen. Bert Stedman were in Houston this week for a six-hour meeting with the Legislature's three oil-tax consultants.

Gaffney, Cline & Associates, Palantir USA and In3nergy are working with state lawmakers to develop computer models that will compare Alaska's oil-tax regime to those in other places.

"Rather than fly all them up, it was just easier to come down here," said Stedman, who stayed two extra days for an oil-tax policy seminar.

Josephson said he, Stedman, legislative staff and officials from Walker's administration met with the companies Wednesday. They reviewed the models, which are essentially spreadsheets that will allow lawmakers to see how oil companies' taxes would be affected by different types of changes to the tax regime.

Josephson said he doesn't expect lawmakers to pass a "major" oil-tax bill in 2018, since it's an election year and the Legislature just passed an oil-tax measure, House Bill 111, in July.

But, he added: "In 2019, there might be." And the consultants would be expected to work with the Legislature's resources and finance committees on such a bill, Josephson said.

Josephson stressed that his trip was not luxurious — he stayed at the Comfort Inn.

Salmon habitat initiative foes move forward as one sponsor withdraws

The pro-development opponents of an emergent salmon habitat protection initiative have geared up to fight the proposal, which they argue could threaten big oil and gas and mining projects.

The opponents' group, Stand for Alaska, filed a report with state campaign finance regulators that showed them raising about $100,000 to fight the initiative. Five-figure contributions came from groups including the Alaska Chamber, the Council of Alaska Producers — a group representing big mines — and the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.

Stand for Alaska's filing showed that it paid $50,000 to Dittman Research for a poll. The group's chair, Marleanna Hall from the Resource Development Council, declined to share its results.

Meanwhile, proponents of the initiative suffered two setbacks this week. One of the initiative's three sponsors, Brian Kraft, stepped down from his position, organizers announced Wednesday.

Kraft owns fishing lodges in the Bristol Bay area that could be affected by the proposed Pebble mine project, and the initiative was seen as a way to fight developments like those. Kraft, in a prepared statement, cited "business and family constraints" as the reason for stepping down as a sponsor.

He didn't respond to a request for comment Friday.

Meanwhile, one opponent of the Pebble project, Bristol Bay Native Corp., said this week that it does not support the salmon habitat protection initiative.

"Development that aligns with local opinion and does not threaten the region's fisheries and fish habitat can and should be given an opportunity to proceed," the corporation's chief executive, Jason Metrokin, said in a prepared statement to Dillingham public radio station KDLG.

End of an era for the Legislature

Pam Varni, the longtime head of the Legislature's nonpartisan support staff, is retiring. Her job — executive director of the Legislative Affairs Agency, or LAA — was posted Wednesday.

When Varni, 66, retires in February, she'll have survived 25 years in charge of the various divisions that serve lawmakers, from accountants to the attorneys who write legislation to a nonpartisan research staff.

Varni started working for LAA in 1978 as a bill typist, she said in a phone interview Friday.

Her position is posted at $108,000 a year. The Legislative Council — a joint House-Senate committee of legislative leaders — will select Varni's successor.

Alaska GOP hires consultant

As the Alaska Democratic Party beefs up its grass-roots organizing, Alaska Republicans have hired their own contractor to work with local districts.

The Alaska Republican Party, in its latest federal campaign finance disclosure, said it hired Myranda Walso on a $2,500 contract. Party chairman Tuckerman Babcock said Walso rewrote a manual for Republican district officials and is helping to coordinate district conventions.

The Republicans earlier this year took a pair of paid staffers off the payroll amid concerns from party leaders about fundraising. Babcock said Walso's contract was a one-time expense.

Walso ran in the GOP primary last year against incumbent Eagle River Rep. Dan Saddler. She got 27 percent of the vote to Saddler's 72 percent.

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