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Peter Micciche's swift rise to power in the Alaska Senate

  • Author: Pat Forgey
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published February 11, 2014

JUNEAU -- What to do when you're a first-term senator, have been a dependable vote for Gov. Sean Parnell and Republican legislative majority leaders, but along comes an issue that your constituents are telling you -- loudly -- that they don't support the governor's position on?

The answer: Remember who your boss is.

For Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, that issue came with House Bill 77, a regulatory rollback measure supported by Parnell, the oil industry and Republican leaders.

But it's been controversial on the Kenai Peninsula, where concerns about local control and loss of salmon run strong.

When the newly elected Sen. Micciche had to figure out what to do on House Bill 77, he likened the decision to that facing the deckhands on his commercial fishing boat. There he's the skipper, and that makes him boss. Micciche's deckhands don't have to like what they're being told to do, but if don't want to listen to the skipper, they're likely to find themselves out of a job.

"It would not be my suggestion if they would like to continue that employment," Micciche said.

So when it came to his constituents' opposition to House Bill 77, Micciche knew where to side, and it was with his Senate district.

"In District O, I happen to be the deckhand to 36,000 skippers," he said. "The majority of those skippers seem to have a problem with House Bill 77 in its current form."

When Micciche determined House Bill 77 shouldn't pass, he successfully prevailed upon fellow Republican and Senate President Charlie Huggins of Wasilla to reconsider House Bill 77. Facing powerful opposition, the Parnell administration is now rewriting the bill and will address those concerns, Micciche and Huggins say.

Micciche, a former mayor of Soldotna, jumped into the Legislature in 2012, and became a player from day one, said Huggins, whom Micciche joined as part of the Republican-led majority caucus that runs the Senate. In a primary, he defeated incumbent Tom Wagoner, who sometimes sided with a Democrat-influenced coalition.

Micciche ousted Wagoner and quickly joined with outcast Republicans to take control of the Senate back. "He's not an up-and-comer," Huggins noted. "He's already there."

As a freshman senator, Micciche was put in charge of a newly created committee, the Special Committee on TAPS Throughput, looking for ways to increase flow through the trans-Alaska pipeline, the state's economic lifeline. Senate Bill 21, the session's defining piece of legislation, was assigned to the committee as its first task.

Micciche was technically one of two co-chairs to the committee, but actually ran things himself. The committee's main conclusion was that the only "lever" Alaska has to affect the amount of flow through TAPS was how much the state takes in taxes. Senate Bill 21 passed through Micciche's committee with the governor's proposal unchanged.

Then, despite repeated statements at the time that the TAPS Throughput Committee wasn't just another tax committee, it effectively stopped work on the throughput issues that supporters claimed was the committee's reason for existence. Those include the technical challenges of low flow, capacity of Prudhoe Bay treatment facilities, and the quality of oil gathering lines.

It heard one other bill, then stopped meeting entirely. Huggins stopped assigning new bills to the committee for consideration.

This year, the TAPS Throughput Committee has yet to meet, but Micciche said it's planning to. "You'll be seeing a schedule in the next couple of weeks," he said Tuesday, meaning that it may be a full year between committee meetings.

While Micciche often talks of his fishing job on his gillnetter, and his life as a husband and father -- he and wife Erin have three children and another on the way -- he talks less about another job.

"I am in the energy industry," Micciche frequently says, without mentioning the state's most important oil company, ConocoPhillips.

That energy industry job is one of the state's most high profile, as his day job is as superintendent of the Liquefied Natural Gas production facility in Nikiski owned by ConocoPhillips, the state's largest oil company.

He's also been reluctant to talk about how much he gets paid in that job. Last year, Micciche's public official disclosure form listed a salary of between $100,000-$200,000. He refused a request from Alaska Dispatch for more specific salary information, saying he'd complied with all disclosure laws and that the public had everything it needed to know about his ConocoPhillips job.

This year, Micciche's disclosure shows a ConocoPhillips salary of $200,000-$500,000 a year.

While Micciche doesn't want his deckhands to forget who is the skipper, in the Legislature, he frequently advocates for the interests of his ConocoPhillips bosses, interests which he says are also the interests of his district's voters.

He denies that his employment presents a conflict of interest, and said he has no role in ConocoPhillips' investment decisions. He said he began as a "roustabout" who outlasted everyone else to become superintendent.

Micciche said that if it comes to a vote, he'll disclose his conflict of interest or perceived conflict of interest, and let the full Senate decide whether he can participate.

"I'll be very careful and very transparent," he said.

In practice, what that means is that Micciche will be participating and voting, despite conflicts, because unwritten legislative policy is to require lawmakers seeking to recuse themselves to get unanimous approval from the other senators. There are always several anonymous objections, so conflicted legislators are always required to vote.

With Senate Bill 21, Micciche provided the crucial 11th Senate vote in the 20-member body to assure its passage.

He later defended that action, saying that had he not taken action, his 36,000 constituents would have been disenfranchised. Other ConocoPhillips employees and spouses cast similar votes.

When Micciche isn't serving in the Legislature, he's advocating for ConocoPhillips in other venues. When key members of the U.S. Senate's Energy Committee visited Nikiski last year while reviewing LNG export issues, Micciche played tour guide at the plant.

Then, during last year's annual legislative visit by U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Micciche lobbied the Senator following her legislative address, and making it clear that he didn't like federal export controls on natural gas.

ConocoPhillips is a major leaseholder and exporter of Alaska natural gas.

"A concern of mine is that the federal government always seems to have the uncanny opinion that they can control natural market forces more effectively than the forces themselves," he said.

What Micciche wanted to know was the progress of the Department of Energy waiver of export prohibitions for Nikiski, asking "How is progress going ensuring that there's a waiver that Alaskans are able to export our LNG in the future, which is a primary economic concern for everyone in this room?"

Murkowski said the visit Micciche hosted would help win political support for exports, and she praised his showmanship after Micciche used a beaker filled with the supercooled gas for a safety demonstration.

"You started it with a great show-and-tell there," she said. "I really appreciate it," she said.

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com

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