Posted Wednesday, May 30, 2018 - 10:24 am
The May 16 vote in the U.S. Senate to reverse the Federal Communications Commission repeal of “net neutrality” rules produced a split from Alaska’s delegation with Sen. Lisa Murkowski joining 49 Democrats and Sen. Dan Sullivan voting with his Republican colleagues.
The Democrats’ rare victory in the Senate was a small one, however, as there is not support in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives or from President Donald Trump, who appointed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, to restore the 2015 net neutrality rules.
Democrats want to make a campaign issue out of net neutrality with tech-savvy millennials by portraying it as a battle of David vs. Goliath with giant internet service providers in one corner and would-be innovators supposedly in danger of being throttled or blocked in the other.
In fact, net neutrality boils down to a battle of Goliath vs. Goliath with the ISPs facing off against the dominant content providers known as FANG: Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google.
According to Canadian bandwidth management systems vendor Sandvine, those four companies combine to take up some 56 percent percent of all internet traffic during peak periods, with Netflix taking the lion’s share of that number at about 36 percent. Next up is YouTube, owned by Google, at about 15 percent.
Netflix had become such a bandwidth hog by 2014 that ISPs such as Comcast and Verizon started slowing down its streaming video; that forced Netflix to sign deals with them to pay a toll so its customers could enjoy faster speeds.
Those deals were voided under the 2015 net neutrality rules that required all traffic to be treated the same regardless of whether it was a blogger or a corporate behemoth like Netflix with 125 million customers.
That was a huge win for content providers who were able to go back to free-riding on the infrastructure built by the ISPs while continuing to charge customers for the services they provide over that same infrastructure.
In practice, so far as the content providers are concerned, net neutrality is akin to “highway neutrality” if all road traffic was treated the same regardless of weight, length, value, etc. Of course we all understand that not all road traffic causes the same impact and therefore users pay different fees, tolls, taxes and the like.
Google doesn’t pay anything for using about one-sixth of the available bandwidth during peak hours, but it definitely charges for YouTube TV and for ad placements on that content flowing through the ISPs.
Netflix is using more than a third of the available broadband and likewise pays nothing for the privilege while raking in billions per month in subscriber revenue.
If anything leads to “throttling” of internet speeds it would be two companies who are using almost half of the available bandwidth.
The fears of ISPs throttling or blocking content are overblown to be sure, but speaking of net “neutrality,” does anyone believe companies like Google, Facebook or Twitter are “neutral”?
Google manipulates search results. Facebook and Twitter have gotten into the speech censorship business by blocking users and the practice of “shadowbanning.”
The corporate leadership and culture of these companies are overwhelmingly, outwardly, proudly, left-wing in nature.
They are by far the dominant platforms for search and social interactions and there is no shortage of incidences of them using their clout for ideological purposes.
In 2012, President Barack Obama’s reelection team was praised for its ability to microtarget voters by scraping data from millions of Facebook profiles, and the company did nothing about it. In 2016, that became a scandal when Cambridge Analytica did the same thing on behalf of then-candidate Trump.
YouTube has “demonetized” conservative users; Facebook curtailed the page for the popular duo of African-American Trump fans Diamond and Silk; Twitter similarly polices progressive speech far more loosely than it does that of the right.
So-called “net neutrality” does nothing to address the lack of neutrality when it comes to political speech exhibited by the Silicon Valley titans who claim to be for a free and open internet with them as champions of open public platforms. They have revealed themselves to be anything but.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Wednesday, May 09, 2018 - 9:31 am
Chronicling political hypocrisy is typically no more difficult than shooting the idiomatic fish in a barrel.
And sometimes the fish jump in front of the bullets.
Such is the case with the 11th-hour hijacking of a bill to update Alaska’s alcoholic beverage regulations known as Title 4.
In the works for six years to develop points of consensus among stakeholders, Senate Bill 76 was sent to the House in a unanimous vote on April 30.
Less than a week later, a former bar owner, Rep. Louise Stutes of Kodiak, and a current bar owner, Rep. Adam Wool of Fairbanks, were aided in passing an amendment aimed at cutting a leg out from under popular craft tasting rooms by the reliably anti-business Rep. Andy Josephson of Anchorage and the reliably unremarkable Rep. Gary Knopp of Kenai.
A parade of bar owners testified on May 2 to the House Labor and Finance Committee with their complaints about the success of craft beer and spirit tasting rooms.
Despite having very limited hours to serve no more than 36 ounces of beer or 3 ounces of spirits to a single customer, and prohibited from offering any entertainment such as televisions, live music or even a pool table, these craft tasting rooms have apparently unlocked the secret to success: offering a product people want in an atmosphere they enjoy.
To hear the bar owners tell it, though, these crafty craft room owners are simply succeeding because they have the unfair advantage of not paying upward of $250,000 for a beverage dispensary license.
These sneaky entrepreneurs have apparently discovered a loophole in the system whereby they can pay $3,000 for a brewery license to sell those three beers per day per customer after investing a half-million dollars or more in tanks, equipment, ingredients, payroll, construction and transportation costs.
Were it not for the real world implications of such a transparent effort to pinch the profitability of another part of the industry he inhabits, Wool’s naked self-dealing would be laugh-out-loud comedy.
Wool, as you may recall, was the lead sponsor of the bill that green lit the operation of ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft in Alaska during the 2017 half of this legislative session.
At the time, and to this day, the one-time occupiers of a government-created and once-protected monopoly in the taxi business screamed to the high heavens to no avail that Uber and Lyft would enjoy unfair competitive advantages of less regulation while offering the same service and without the burden of purchasing the expensive and limited number of permits.
The arguments by the taxi lobby aren’t much different than those being raised by the bar industry, but in an ultimate irony they held more water then than they do now.
Unlike the craft tasting rooms versus bars, Uber and Lyft occupy the exact same space in the transportation industry as taxis do without the same cost of entry to the business.
That didn’t mean much to Wool, who cited long waits for taxis as a reason for his support for the bill. No doubt his bottom line has benefitted over the past year since as a customer or two at his bar may have been more willing to have that last cocktail with the knowledge a ride home was just a click and a few minutes away.
But now that his fellow industry travelers have an opening to stick it to competitors rather than pondering what may make a tasting room a more popular option for some customers and adjusting their business accordingly, Wool and Stutes are doing their bidding by attempting to slash crafters’ potential revenue by a third with no corresponding benefit to bar owners.
Wool actually called the one-third reduction a “compromise,” which begs the question: a compromise from what?
If customers are expressing a clear preference for local brews and spirits, perhaps the solution for bar owners would be to serve more of those options rather than further limiting the amounts available just feet from the tanks in a hamhanded attempt to force them into their businesses.
What the bar owners are arguing would be like souvenir shops in Homer complaining that Salty Dawg is cutting into their hoodie sales, or Fred Meyer whining that farmers’ markets hurt its produce department.
Hopefully House Finance will strip this amendment out of the bill, or it will get killed on the floor, but even if the bill is held until next session that would be a preferable alternative than to reward the worst of legislative tactics being plied by Stutes and Wool.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Wednesday, May 02, 2018 - 10:23 am
Those responsible for recruiting teachers to Alaska have a funny way of going about it.
In this issue we quote Gateway School District Superintendent Scott MacManus, who says Alaska is “not competitive” for pay and that its 401k system for teachers is “not seen favorably.”
Given that public position you have to wonder what exactly is MacManus’ pitch to prospective teachers at job fairs if he thinks conditions are so horrible for teachers in Alaska.
Alaska teachers on average make $67,433 per year according to 2016 data compiled by the National Education Association, which is about $10,000 more than the average wage for all occupations in the state and nearly $9,000 more than the national average for teachers.
While teacher advocates complain about the state cost of living, they fail to note there are no state income, sales or property taxes.
There is also a complaint that teachers aren’t eligible for Social Security. That stems from a decision that goes back to the 1950s when Alaska elected to create a pension system for public employees rather than opt in to the Social Security system. (Correction: Teachers in Alaska were covered in the territory under the Teacher Retirement System. After the Social Security Act was amended in 1950 to allow public employees to enroll, the territory expanded retirement benefits to all of its non-TRS employees by signing a Federal Social Security Agreement. This benefit for governmental employees was later offered by the territorial legislature to employees of political subdivisions across the State, excluding members of TRS, and the agreements continued after statehood in 1959. In 1978, the public employees opted to end their participation in Social Security with the agreement the state would develop an alternative plan. Source: State of Alaska Division of Retirment and Benefits)
While it’s true teachers aren’t eligible for Social Security, they are also not subject to paying 6.2 percent of their income in the payroll tax, which increases their take home income by more than $4,100 per year for the average salary.
The more than 3,000 teachers in the Anchorage School District, by far the largest in the state, pay nothing toward their health insurance premiums that are nearly $1,600 per month.
With an 8 percent 401k match from the state, that adds up to an additional $5,400 benefit for the average salary each year. Financial planners advise saving 10 percent to 15 percent of income per year toward retirement; Alaska teachers are able to put away 16 percent of their income annually.
In sum, teachers in Alaska earn more than the average worker, they pay less in taxes and health insurance premiums then the average worker, and they have a more generous 401k match than virtually any other worker.
(Without knowing the details of every private company 401k program it’s impossible to say nobody else receives an 8 percent match, but it is safe to say those who do are exceedingly few in number.)
But to hear MacManus and NEA Alaska President Tim Parker tell it, every state has a better pension system than Alaska because it is the only one that uses a 401k program instead of a defined benefit system.
Teachers have been striking in states across the country, and a May 1 Associated Press article headline noted the reason: “High pension costs lurk behind US teacher push for more pay.”
School districts around the nation including Alaska have racked up a half-trillion — yes, $500 billion — in pension liabilities.
That means teachers’ wages are being frozen to pay down debts for current retirees and having their own future benefits cut.
“I think what you see happening in the state and local and municipal sector is it has now become very, very clear how expensive defined benefit plans are. I think we’re headed for a big crisis across the country,” said Olivia Mitchell, executive director of the Pension Research Council at the University of Pennsylvania, according to the AP story.
“Pensions are now becoming the tail that wags the government dog, if you will.”
Three nonpartisan think tanks that have examined the issue — which don’t have a stake in Alaska teacher income — all grade the state 401k system as far better for new teachers than the pensions that are bankrupting other states.
Alaska was one of only nine states that didn’t get an “F” from Bellweather Education Partners; the Urban Policy Institute gave Alaska a “B” for new teacher hires; and the National Center for Teacher Quality gave Alaska the only “A” grade in the country for creating a portable, 401k-style plan for new teachers in which they get to keep 100 percent of their retirement savings compared to the national average of 28 percent.
According to NEA data, only two states and the District of Columbia spend more per student than Alaska and no state spends more as a percentage of total income than Alaska.
That raises the question there doesn’t seem to be an answer to from those arguing for more pay and a generous defined benefit pension system: how much is enough?
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Wednesday, March 28, 2018 - 11:07 am
Other than projecting relentless optimism about the prospects for the Alaska LNG Project, the second constant from its leadership and proponents has been criticism of the press coverage it receives.
Over and over we’ve heard Alaska Gasline Development Corp. President Keith Meyer rip the news coverage of the project as overly negative and damaging in foreign markets.
In this issue we share an opinion piece by two advocates for the Alaska LNG Project who are now channeling Meyer’s press critiques, this time on the topic of the state’s trade relationship with China.
“We should celebrate being an international exporter and be concerned when local voices speak negatively about our business partners around the world,” write the authors Doug Griffin and Tim Dillon of the Southeast Alaska Municipal Conference and the Kenai Economic Development District, respectively. “… As Alaskan economic development entities, we envision a future where we see more and more headlines telling a positive Alaska-China story.”
Touting Gov. Bill Walker’s upcoming trade mission to China, the authors note the country’s status as the state’s biggest export destination with $1.32 billion in products last year, just more than 60 percent of that in seafood.
Meyer spent a lot of time in China over the past year-plus working on a deal that culminated in the signing of an agreement last November outlining a framework that could have the country investing in up to 75 percent of the project costs in exchange for 75 percent of the LNG it will produce.
On the surface, anything that helps turn the dream of unlocking the vast North Slope gas resource into a reality is a positive step. China does need cleaner energy as it has begun literally choking on its own pollution and has more than enough financial resources to invest.
Beyond that, there is every reason to air concerns about the terms China will attempt to extract in exchange for its majority-share investment and what the Walker administration would cede to China in the name of building the project he’s pursued for some 30 years.
And let’s get real: China is not Japan or Korea, Alaska’s No. 2 and 3 trading partners who are also geopolitical allies.
The list is virtually endless when it comes to China’s human rights violations, its cyberattacks on and intellectual property theft from U.S. companies, its currency manipulation, its evading of sanctions on North Korea, its military aggression and expansion in the South China Sea, and so on.
Griffin and Dillon don’t even acknowledge China’s bad behavior on these numerous fronts, and appear to want the press, legislators and business stakeholders to ignore these issues entirely in the name of increasing Alaska trade regardless of who it is with.
They also don’t mention that the vast majority of those seafood exports are reprocessed in China and sold elsewhere through value-adding that we should aim to happen in Alaska and not celebrate as a penultimate trade achievement.
China is ruthlessly aggressive in pursuing its economic, political and military interests and it does not make deals that go against them. A healthy concern or even skepticism is hardly unwarranted when it comes to making a $40 billion-deal with the Communist leaders of the world’s largest economy.
The Walker administration is also asking for unlimited receipt authority for AGDC to accept third-party funds as its stash of previous state appropriations dwindles and its leaders have made the political decision to not seek more money from a cash-strapped state treasury.
Preserving legislative oversight of the deals AGDC is making and what pieces of state resources it contemplates trading in order to advance the project are entirely appropriate and vital to upholding the constitutional mandate to develop resources for the maximum benefit of Alaskans.
Just four years ago Walker was accusing former Gov. Sean Parnell of playing election-year politics for his moves to advance the Alaska LNG Project as an equity consortium with the three major North Slope producers and TransCanada.
Now as Walker pursues reelection his surrogates are asking critics of his plan to be quiet about the path he’s pursuing and with whom he is pursuing it.
The Alaska LNG Project will not — and should not — rise or fall based on the press coverage it receives or the amount of skepticism voiced in the Legislature or business community about its economics or the prospect of dealing with China.
Working the press and leaning on skeptics to keep quiet in the name of more “positive headlines” isn’t going to get the Alaska LNG Project built and it comes off as a sign of weakness more than strength.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Wednesday, January 31, 2018 - 11:09 am
Nobody could blame Rep. Justin Parish for loving the sound of his own voice.
The problem is that everything that comes out of the Juneau Democrat’s mouth regarding oil taxes following his baritone “Madam Chair” reveals a depth of knowledge that is shallower than a contact lens case.
Parish was on full, cringe-worthy display at a couple recent hearings of the House Resources Committee, where co-chair Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage, is forcing oil industry representatives to hump to Juneau yet again for more hearings on another oil tax bill that’s going nowhere.
If these hearings are good for anything — other than serving as a constant reminder that the state is on track to see its third straight year of production increases on the North Slope — it is to witness the Democrat-led Majority’s utter cluelessness on policy from definitional basics to more complex financial reporting.
First up was Parish questioning Tax Division Director Ken Alper, whom Democrats have relied upon since taking the House majority in 2016 to help craft their seemingly endless series of oil tax increases.
At the Jan. 26 hearing, Alper had an innocuous PowerPoint slide that noted Tarr’s proposal to raise the gross minimum tax from 4 percent to 7 percent is a 75 percent increase.
Parish, who once wrote that “French is the international language of freedom,” decided to wade into the universal language of math.
“We are contemplating increasing the effective rate by 3 percent,” Parish said. “It’s such a curious quirk of language. Because if we were increasing it from 1 percent to 2 percent, you could say we’re increasing the effective tax rate by 100 percent.”
Alper agreed, “Yes, doubling it.”
“Which just, on the face sounds like we’re going up to an effective tax rate of 101 percent,” Parish said. “Which is positively bizarre. I would ask you in the future not to muddle things by saying we’re increasing the effective tax rate by 75 percent when on the face of it you’d think we’re going from a 4 percent gross tax to a 79 percent tax rate, which is also a plain language reading of what you have here.”
The only thing muddled is Parish’s thinking but the problem is his muddled thinking came along with an instruction to Alper to refrain from using math because it accurately portrays the size of the tax increase Tarr is proposing.
Parish wasn’t done yet, and saved some of his best column material for BP Vice President Lewis Westwick a few days later on Jan. 29.
Just five minutes earlier, Westwick had responded to Rep. George Rauscher, R-Wasilla, who gave him an opportunity to address Parish’s statement at the Jan. 26 hearing that BP earned 74 percent of its global profits in Alaska in 2016.
The original source of that claim is from the Journal itself, when BP reported results for its upstream business of $85 million. The company only made $115 million worldwide that year, leading us to draw the same erroneous conclusion that Parish is still quoting two years later.
In fact, our subsequent reporting based on an email we obtained written by BP Alaska President Janet Weiss corrected the record to reflect BP’s annual report did not break out the results from its midstream business, namely TAPS and its marine tanker business.
“We made a loss of almost $200 million,” Westwick said, which jives with Weiss’ statement of a $184 million loss in her email. “Despite seeing a positive $85 million in the annual report, that’s just a slice of our Alaska business.”
Turns out Parish’s listening skills are about as good as his math skills.
“I wonder, if about 74 percent of BP’s global profits as your documents to your shareholders I presume assert, how can it be said we’re not competitive when we account for, again, about 74 percent of global profits according to your documents and yet only 1 percent of global production,” Parish said. “I really would be interested in knowing.”
Westwick was as pleasant as could be and even graciously took the blame for Parish’s ignorant question.
“As I tried to explain, perhaps not very well,” Westwick said, “the $85 million is just a slice of the Alaska business. It would be akin to taking your best well and saying, ‘this is how I’m going to report my financials.’ The actual entirety of the Alaska business lost money in 2016, which for legal reasons around disclosure, we don’t disclose in the annual report. In 2016, the way we look at the Alaska business, we made a loss of almost $200 million. It would not represent, as you describe, 75 percent of the total group profit.”
Parish does represent, unfortunately, the people of Juneau. Surely they can do better.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Wednesday, January 10, 2018 - 10:10 am
The only thing surprising about U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinding the Obama administration’s policy of nonenforcement in states that have legalized recreational use of marijuana is how many people acted surprised by it.
A law-and-order Attorney General who stands in stark contrast to his lawless predecessors Loretta Lynch and Eric Holder and who has made it one of his missions to go after sanctuary cities for ignoring federal immigration laws was never going to maintain an official policy of doing the same for marijuana.
To his credit, Sessions did not make enforcement of federal marijuana laws one of his national priorities and simply tasked the U.S. attorneys in each state to follow existing principles for prosecutions. The Alaska U.S. attorney announced nothing would change, as did his counterpart in Colorado where recreational marijuana for adults is also legal under state law.
The pro-cannabis crowd was quick to jump on Sessions for withdrawing the Cole memo issued in 2013, but they should be thanking him instead.
What Sessions did was to send the issue where it rightly belongs and shined a bright light on Congress to finally do something about reconciling the conflict between states that have legalized medicinal and/or recreational use and the laws on the books classifying the drug alongside heroin and cocaine.
Truly, it is an amazing thing to hear those with the power to change the law demanding the Attorney General not do his job because they have failed to do theirs.
Overall, 29 states have legalized medicinal marijuana; eight states plus the District of Columbia have legalized recreational use; and 18 states allow for the use of cannabinoid oil, also known as CBD, which is non-psychoactive.
Together that is more than 40 states with some kind of law conflicting with federal law, which should in theory create a super majority of elected officials that could change the law in bipartisan fashion.
Instead, Congress has been content to sit on the sidelines relying on federal nonenforcement, which is neither proper nor sustainable.
When pressed in the past, Congress has acted to protect state laws on marijuana.
As the Obama Justice Department and affiliated agencies were conducting hundreds of raids on marijuana dispenseries around the nation that were otherwise in compliance with state laws, Congress began passing amendments to annual spending bills that prohibited any money from being spent on such prosecutions.
The Rohrabacher-Farr amendment has been included in every spending bill since 2014. Another amendment to Veterans’ Affairs spending bills has also prohibited the VA from sanctioning doctors who talk to patients about potential benefits of marijuana in treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
In short, Congress has found the will to allow certain uses of marijuana already and now will be forced to go further because of Sessions’ action.
Rep. Don Young has been at the forefront of this issue and is a co-founder of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus that is seeking to recognize states’ rights to regulate marijuana as they see fit and to open the banking system to legally operating businesses.
Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan have suggested it may be a bridge too far to take marijuana off the Schedule I list under the Controlled Substances Act, but that should be the easiest call. Keeping it listed alongside the highly-addictive and far more dangerous heroin and cocaine makes no sense given what’s been seen in Alaska and elsewhere it has been legalized.
After a voter initiative to legalize recreational use for adults in Alaska somewhat narrowly in 2014, there have been four efforts at the local level to turn back the clock. In the conservative Matanuska-Susitna Valley, in Fairbanks and on the Kenai Peninsula voters have overwhelmingly voted to keep the cannabis business legal.
Not everything has gone perfectly in Alaska, with the recent issue of testing inconsistencies rising before the Marijuana Control Board to address, but there have hardly been any of the deleterious effects opponents warned of before the 2014 vote.
Sessions is no fan of marijuana, and Alaska’s congressional delegation are always quick to point out they don’t advocate for its use either, but that is irrelevant. The people have spoken loud and clear across the nation and it’s time for Congress to start listening, and respond with action.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Wednesday, December 20, 2017 - 10:43 am
Just a few days remain in 2017, and what a year it has been since the inauguration of President Donald Trump.
While the Alaska Legislature still can’t agree on a solution to the state’s budget woes and has nearly run out of the politically-accessible savings accounts, in a welcome change it has had no bigger friend than the leader of the executive branch in Washington, D.C.
As this column was being written the news came that a bill is on its way to Trump’s desk to massively overhaul the tax system and hand Alaska its longtime, No. 1 goal of opening the coastal plain of …
ANWR: The Democrats in the Senate couldn’t stop it this time, nor could their allies in the environmental extremist movement. We are a long way from first oil, and the lawsuit machine is no doubt cranking up, but there can be no doubt that the prospect of opening up another Prudhoe Bay bodes well for Alaska’s future.
Budget battle: The Legislature spent a record 211 days in session this year, partly thanks to its divided houses’ inability to compromise and partly because of Gov. Bill Walker’s October special session that transformed from a supposed “revenue” session to a referendum on the criminal justice reform bill passed barely a year earlier.
Cannabis: The sky hasn’t fallen in Alaska after the legalization of cannabis in 2014, with the first legal sale in October 2016. Prohibitionists have attempted to overturn the state vote in the Mat-Su, on the Kenai Peninsula and in Fairbanks, but voters have resoundingly rejected every effort to turn back the clock.
Dean Don: Rep. Don Young assumed the title of “Dean of the House” after Michigan Rep. John Conyers was forced to resign amid multiple sexual harassment allegations and settlements of those allegations. There’s no shortage of legendary stories about Young over his four decades in Congress — including one that surfaced this year about brandishing a knife at former Speaker John Boehner — but thankfully none that resemble the daily revelations coming out of DC, Hollywood and New York.
EIS: Probably more Alaskans know what EIS stands for than any other state population, and environmental impact statements are now underway for the Liberty offshore Arctic project, the Nanushuk onshore discovery by Armstrong and the 211-mile road to the Ambler mining district.
Fake news: The media created this term in order to discredit Trump’s win, and the president has turned it into a club to bash the ever-shrinking credibility of an industry once regarded as a check on power that is not even bothering to hide its progressive agenda anymore.
GDP: After never crossing the 3 percent growth mark in eight years under President Barack Obama, GDP has steadily averaged 3 percent under Trump as the stock market soars. Even before tax reform passed the Federal Reserve now estimates fourth quarter GDP will be 4 percent.
Harassment: The story of the year, as the mountain of allegations against Hollywood mogul and Democrat heavyweight Harvey Weinstein has unleashed a tsunami of pent-up accusations that shows no signs yet of ebbing that have brought down some of the biggest names in media, politics and entertainment who have largely spent years portraying themselves as champions of women’s rights.
ISIS: After Obama downplayed the rise of ISIS and sat by as it ran roughshod over Iraq and Syria committing atrocity after atrocity, less than a year after Trump became Commander-in-Chief the “caliphate” has been routed from its capitals of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. Although much like the GDP numbers, the media isn’t much interested in reporting on this tremendous military success.
Jerusalem: Yes, it is the capital of Israel and yet another example of Trump keeping a promise where his predecessors going back to Bill Clinton have not. If you haven’t watched UN Ambassador Nikki Haley give it to the Security Council, it is worth a view for the refreshing sound of a nation that is unashamed of exercising its sovereignty rather than be cowed by the constraints of “international opinion.”
King Cove: The road is on its way to being built, again to the consternation of environmental groups who care not a whit for the people of the region and would not live for a minute under the conditions they want to impose on others.
LNG: Gov. Bill Walker got some serious face time in China with its president and Trump. Whether the joint development agreement with the Chinese corporations is simply a memorandum of understanding by another name will become more clear in the coming year.
Media meltdown: A continuation on the fake news, the more the media protests like Fredo Corleone that it is smart and wants respect, the more they trample on their own feet trying to unearth the smoking gun on Russian collusion by Trump. There have been nearly as many corrections, retractions and resignations surrounding the Trump-Russia story as there have been sexual harassment allegations.
Nanushuk: The discovery by Armstrong Energy keeps getting bigger. Now estimated at more than 2 billion barrels while still barely delineated, the record amounts bid per acre in the formation at the state lease sale bodes well for future production regardless of how long it takes to develop ANWR.
Obamacare: The biggest GOP debacle of the year, Obamacare still exists as the law of the land after Congress failed to repeal and replace it this past summer despite seven years of promises of what Republicans would do if they had the House, Senate and White House. The individual mandate repeal is a start but fixing the broken system is a huge item still on the to-do list.
PFD: For the second year in a row it was set below the statutory formula, this time by the Legislature after Walker vetoed half of it in 2016 and had his action upheld by the Supreme Court. The fight to enshrine it in the Constitution is now on, and is likely to be led by the unlikely duo of arch-conservative Sen. Mike Dunleavy and staunch liberal Sen. Bill Wielechowski in the coming year.
Quintillion: The Anchorage telecom has completed its Arctic fiber network around the coast of Alaska and turned on its high-speed service Dec. 1. By any measure an impressive infrastructure accomplishment, rural Alaska has another entry to the information superhighway.
Rocket Man: Trump being Trump, he called the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un “Rocket Man” in a speech to the UN after several missile tests and a nuclear test over the past year. The missiles are showing increasing ability to reach the US mainland and that means a huge amount of federal dollars are going to be flowing to Alaska as the first line of defense at Fort Greely.
Salmon: A bountiful harvest of salmon in virtually every area of the state was a highlight of 2017, with record harvest of chum in the Northwest in a boon to that area’s limited economy. The downsides were Cook Inlet reds and Southeast kings, neither of which look better in 2018.
Tax cuts: The media has trashed the tax overhaul constantly, and is pointing to their polls of the public who has heard nothing good from them about the bill. We’ll see how the polling looks as soon as February when nearly every paycheck gets bigger thanks to less withholding.
Uber: Alaska became the last state in the nation to allow ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft to operating here. In a rare wise move, the Legislature prohibited local jurisdictions from piling regulations on top of the companies.
Virgin: Alaska Airlines closed on its deal to acquire Virgin America and is still experiencing some growing pains, but the company has the cash, the assets and the management to iron them out.
Waiver: One of the few worthwhile aspects of the Affordable Care Act ended up benefitting Alaska when Health and Human Services approved an innovation waiver to help cover the costs of the state reinsurance program. It’s a simple redirection of federal subsidies from premium support to paying high-cost claims, but it is a model that can work elsewhere by giving states more control.
Xtra revenue: Better prices and higher production have the state projected to take in $250 million more than previously expected after the Revenue Department released its latest forecast on Dec. 12.
Yakutat: An interesting exploration project is going on at Icy Cape near Yakutat with potentially huge deposit of heavy minerals such as garnet. The big positive is that no major processing or leeching is needed to extract what could produce millions per year in revenue for the Mental Health Trust that owns the land.
Zinke: Nearly an honorary Alaskan at this point, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has ordered the resource review of NPR-A and ANWR, elevated the King Cove road to a high priority and tapped Alaskans Joe Balash, Tara Sweeney and Steve Wackowski to join his staff.
Posted Wednesday, December 06, 2017 - 10:23 am
Opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain to development wouldn’t be necessary if only we could power our economy with Democratic hysteria.
The biggest outrage since the last outrage, of course, is the impending passage of a tax reform bill that should reach President Donald Trump’s desk for his signature before the end of the year.
In the days since the Dec. 2 Senate vote that cleared the way for a conference committee with the House, Democrats and their media sympathizers have been gnashing teeth and rending garments over a bill that ranks as only the eighth-largest tax cut as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product since 1918.
That’s the conclusion of the Washington Post fact checkers, who unintentionally confirmed the derangement of their partisan friends in an attempt to undercut Trump’s boasts about the bill.
Accepting the Congressional Budget Office estimate that the bill reduces revenue to the federal government by $1 trillion over a decade, the average of $100 billion per year amounts to 2.7 percent of estimated fiscal year 2018 tax receipts and 2.3 percent of the budget.
That’s right. The Democrat-media Apocalyptic freakout is based on Uncle Sam collecting a whopping two or three pennies on the dollar less than it does now.
Although it is more heart-warming than watching a litter of puppies chase butterflies to see the Democrat-media industrial complex suddenly care about budget deficits after the national debt increased by $10 trillion in eight years of President Barack Obama, the position is as disingenuous as it is overwrought.
Throughout the national media and to the editorial page in our capital city here in Alaska, the foregone revenue to the federal government is being described repeatedly as a “cost” to the taxpayers.
Only in the through-the-looking-glass world we live in now could taxpayers and businesses keeping more of what they earn be described as a “cost.”
Jumping off from an analogy that regular American “sparrows” are left to pick the oats from the feces of corporate “horses,” the editorial from Juneau is filled with so much magical thinking it could be a Harry Potter novel and reading the piece from the seat of our state government makes one wonder if Sen. Bernie Sanders has joined the editorial board.
Juneau is coincidentally home to more millionaires per capita than any city of its size in the country, and just as coincidentally the four richest counties in the United States are home to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where a record $3.6 trillion in tax dollars will flow this fiscal year. Funny that, how the richest parts of our state and nation are concentrated where the tax dollars are collected and distributed.
The editorial claims that for the “cost” of the tax bill we could give every American household $1,000 per year for 10 years, plus pay for free college tuition for every student at the same time, or pay for national health care system, or “maybe” fund one year of the War on Terror.
All that was missing was a free unicorn for everyone and brown cows that give chocolate milk.
The $1,000 for every household for 10 years adds up to $1.2 trillion, which leaves nothing for the free tuition plan.
National health care expenses between private and government sources totaled $3.2 trillion in 2015, so that math is a little short, too.
As for “maybe” paying for a year of the War on Terror, the fiscal year 2018 budget for overseas combat operations is about $71 billion.
Much of the ire over the tax bill flows from the reduction of the corporate tax rate from 35 percent, currently the highest in the world, to 20 percent.
Lost in the furor is the fact that despite having the highest corporate rate in the world, the revenue from that source accounts for only about 11 percent of total tax receipts. In fact, collections from the corporate tax through the first 10 months of the 2017 fiscal year were just $232 billion compared to $273 billion in the same period of 2015.
Looking back at the history of the corporate tax rate, every time it has been reduced there has been an increase in GDP in the following years.
Under tax reductions championed by President John F. Kennedy, the corporate rate was cut from 52 percent to 50 percent in 1963. GDP growth went from 4.3 percent in 1963 to 5.6 percent in 1964.
It was reduced again from 50 percent to 48 percent in 1965, and growth increased to 6.2 percent.
From 1963-66, despite the cut in rate, the percent of revenue from corporate taxes increased from 20.3 percent to 23 percent.
A year later, the rate went up from 48 percent to 52.8 percent in 1967, and growth slowed from 6.3 percent in 1966 to 2.5 percent.
After GDP growth slowed to 0.2 percent by 1969, the corporate rate was returned to 48 percent in 1971 and growth increased to 5.2 percent and 5.6 percent, respectively, in 1972 and 1973.
When the corporate rate was cut from 40 percent to 34 percent in 1987, GDP growth increased from 3.1 percent that year to 4 percent in 1988.
Add all that up with the bonus of opening ANWR to development and a chaotic year in Congress can end with at least one promise kept to the people who handed Republicans the power to deliver on the ones they’ve been making for seven years.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Wednesday, November 29, 2017 - 10:15 am
One by one, the items on Alaska’s wish list are being checked off as the first Christmas of the Trump administration nears.
With Republicans appearing to gather enough votes in the Senate to secure passage of their tax overhaul bill, we could see President Trump signing legislation that will finally open the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Also in December we’ll see Italian oil major Eni begin drilling exploratory wells into the federal Arctic Outer Continental Shelf from its Spy Island in state waters following the Nov. 28 approval of the plan by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.
On Dec. 6 in Anchorage, the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska bids will be opened after the Interior Department made all 10.3 million acres currently available part of the annual lease sale. That will follow the third-largest amount of bids ever received in the 2016 sale and reflects the commitment of the administration to unlock Alaska’s energy potential.
A less certain but potentially major development could also be forthcoming in Southeast as Sen. Lisa Murkowski — who has shepherded the ANWR legislation through the Energy and Natural Resources Committee she chairs — used her position as chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee for the Interior to revisit the 2016 Tongass Management Plan and to repeal the confounding Roadless Rule the state has been battling in court since 2003.
That would be part of the fiscal year 2018 budget, but the uncertainty stems from the current continuing resolution funding the government expiring on Dec. 8 and the prospect of Democrats trying to leverage immigration reform for the so-called “Dreamers” into the negotiations.
No state has benefited more than Alaska under the Trump administration, but that isn’t terribly surprising considering the federal government controls two-thirds of the land and nearly all the waters off our shores.
What has been surprising is how willing leaders at the state and local level have been to squander the opportunities presented by the most friendly federal government toward Alaska seen in generations.
Gov. Bill Walker and Democrat legislators have proposed multiple increases in oil taxes and supported the stop payment on tax credits earned and owed, which has directly led to lost jobs and production.
Rep. Louise Stutes, the Fisheries Committee chair in the House and a member of the Democrat-led majority, is supporting both legislation and a ballot initiative that threatens development throughout the state of projects big and small.
Permitting the Donlin gold mine or Walker’s gas pipeline could be impossible if Stutes’ bill or the initiative passes.
While the state economy labors through a recession and has lost 3,600 high-paying jobs in the oil and gas and construction sectors — and the Republicans in Congress are attempting to lower tax burdens — the obsession with income taxes continues from Walker and the Democrats, whose best argument for one boils down to “we have to have one.”
Meanwhile in Anchorage back in August, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz held a fundraiser for Sen. Maria Cantwell, who is leading the fight against opening ANWR now after helping block it back in 2005. There were plenty of reasons for Alaska Support Industry Alliance CEO Rebecca Logan to run against Berkowitz in the April election, but raising money for an enemy of Alaska is good enough on its own.
Former Sen. Mark Begich, fortunately replaced by Dan Sullivan in 2014 as part of the GOP takeover of the Senate, also hosted the Cantwell fundraiser and donated to his former Democrat colleague.
While far friendlier to resource development than most Democrats (Begich was the lone voice in his party supporting Shell in Arctic exploration), if he decides to throw his hat into the race for governor his support of Cantwell will have to be an issue.
At least Santa won’t have any trouble figuring out whose stockings deserve a lump of coal this year.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Wednesday, November 08, 2017 - 10:23 am
A year ago to the day from this writing, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in a political upset for the ages that both Democrats and Republicans are still trying to come to grips with.
The infighting between Republican ranks of the establishment put off by Trump’s brash nature versus the voters who put them all in power is rivaled only by the Democrats’ self-immolation over the still ongoing Wednesday-morning quarterbacking about how Clinton blew what was supposed to be an easy win and recent revelations about primary-rigging and the Russian “collusion” that are leading not to the White House but to the Democratic campaign apparatus instead.
While there was immediate hope within Alaska at the realization that the federal government would get its boot off the state’s neck after eight years of strangulation by the Obama administration, nobody could have predicted just how greatly Trump would focus on unlocking the state’s resources.
This December, the entire available area of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska of nearly 12 million acres will be up for bid in a lease sale.
Around that same time, Congress should be passing a tax reform bill through budget reconciliation that will finally open the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to development as was intended nearly 40 years ago when that area was set aside for its vast potential.
After the much-publicized $7 billion failure of Shell to explore its Arctic offshore leases, Eni and Hilcorp are quietly advancing plans to produce oil from federal waters of the Outer Continental Shelf from manmade islands.
Regular order has been restored to the permitting process for the Pebble mine, whose owners have finally released a plan for a scaled-down version of the project with an assurance it will finally get a fair hearing.
Right now, Gov. Bill Walker is the only state executive traveling with Trump on his trip to Asia, and the president has dotted his administration with Alaskans in some of the most important positions.
Trump has recognized Alaska’s strategic national security importance, and just sought another $4 billion for a new missile defense site at Fort Greely.
He put Alaskans in charge of the nation’s fisheries, its on and offshore minerals, the Environmental Protection Agency Region 10 covering the state and made Tara Sweeney the first Alaska Native woman appointed to a confirmation-level post as the Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs.
The road from King Cove to Cold Bay looks surer to become a reality than it ever has, and while the environmental non-government organizations have howled at its recent progress, the fact an issue as relatively small as this one has caught the attention of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke as a priority speaks volumes about Alaska’s status in the current administration.
Oh, there have been troubles along the way, as Trump has aimed his Twitter ire at our senior Sen. Lisa Murkowski over her reticence to go along with a rushed process on repealing Obamacare that even included an alleged threat from Zinke in a beef that was quickly squashed.
Even on that front, earlier this year the state received an “innovation waiver” under Obamacare that allowed the federal government to fund the state’s reinsurance program in lieu of larger premium support payments. The move makes Alaska likely the only state in the nation in line to see insurance premiums fall next year.
Thanksgiving is still a couple weeks away, but it’s never too early to be glad for where the state stands now compared the wasteland it would have been under a President Hillary Clinton.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Friday, October 27, 2017 - 11:08 am
If Sen. Bill Wielechowski is true to his word, we’ve heard the last from him about changing Alaska’s oil taxes.
Back on June 10, 2014, Wielechowski and now-former Sen. Hollis French (who Gov. Bill Walker appointed to the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission last year) issued a “very simple challenge.”
“If SB 21 produces new oil, even ONE additional barrel, and this production results in increased revenue to the state, even ONE more dollar we will drop our support for revising oil taxes,” Wielechowski said.
The legislation proposed by Wielechowski and French called for the previous system known as ACES to be retroactively implemented in 2019 “if there is not one new barrel of oil produced compared to the 2013 TransAlaska Pipeline moving average of 531,000 (approx.) and total oil revenues from 2014 to 2018 are not any greater under SB 21 than they would have been under ACES.”
On Oct. 25 in Juneau, state Revenue Department officials released a revised production forecast for the current fiscal year of 533,000 barrels per day.
That’s 1,999 barrels more than needed under Wielechowski’s and French’s challenge and by the time the fiscal year ends next June 30 it could be plenty more.
We’ve yet to reach the peak production months on the North Slope, yet in September the daily rate was 512,000 barrels per day compared to 474,000 per day in September 2016.
So far in October, the daily production is 537,000 barrels per day compared to 525,000 per day in the same month last year.
This puts the North Slope on track for its third straight year of production increases in the four full fiscal years that Senate Bill 21 has been in place despite the fact prices have cratered from about $112 per barrel when it passed to as low as $26 per barrel in January 2016.
Meeting the revenue half of the Wielechowski-French challenge is even more of a layup.
Nobody, not even the Democrats, disputes that SB 21 has collected more production tax revenue than ACES would have at the prices from 2014-18. ACES would have collected zero production taxes at prices less than $63 per barrel, which we haven’t seen since the first quarter of 2015. The revised price forecast doesn’t expect prices to cross the $63 threshold until 2020.
That represents hundreds of millions more in revenue under SB 21 versus ACES.
Early indications are Wielechowski has either forgotten about the gauntlet he and his former Democrat colleague laid down or doesn’t intend to abide by it.
He was tweeting the day after about how we haven’t reached former Gov. Sean Parnell’s goal of 1 million barrels per day and then turned his attention to the difference in production tax revenue versus the entirely separate subject of oil tax credits.
Sarah Erkmann Ward of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association offered a kill shot to Wielechowski’s million-barrel reference when he claimed Parnell’s goal was entirely based on passage of SB 21 and not the potential production from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or the Outer Continental Shelf.
Ward promptly replied with the 2012 briefing note from the Department of Natural Resources, which clearly included ANWR and OCS as part of the 10-year goal to reach 1 million barrels.
We are now five years out from that briefing paper, and years 2-5 are of particular note:
“Increased infield production from legacy fields.”
“Development of smaller pools of conventional oil (Oooguruk, Nikaitchuq, and others); the North Slope is estimated to have “dozens” of such untapped fields ranging from 25 million to 350 million barrels”
“Production from the eastern North Slope, including Point Thomson, which will create economies of scale to explore and develop the eastern North Slope.”
Wielechowski has been hoisted by his own challenge, but his defensive and rather sad tweeting shows he remains without shame about how wrong he’s been on SB 21.
Moving from the pathetic to the laughable was Walker’s reaction to the production forecast:
“The Walker-Mallott Administration has been working closely with our industry partners to incentivize production, which is crucial to building a Stronger Alaska.”
Closely as in proposing several times to raise oil production taxes.
Closely as in vetoing $630 million in oil tax credits over two years that has slowed down or stopped multiple efforts at exploration and new production.
Closely as in threatening the operators of Prudhoe Bay for not bowing to his demands for natural gas marketing information.
Mallott, for his part, declared that oil would no longer be the sustaining driver of the economy, “not even close to what it has been in these first 50 years,” in a speech to the Southeast Conference in September 2016.
Meanwhile, the Nanushuk project by Armstrong Energy that could reach 120,000 barrels per day is going through permitting, as is Hilcorp’s Liberty OCS project pegged to reach 60,000 barrels per day.
Meanwhile, ConocoPhillips is developing its Greater Mooses Tooth 1 and 2 prospects that have combined potential of 60,000 barrels per day and the company also announced its Willow discovery in the NPR-A with potential for 100,000 barrels per day.
That’s up 340,000 barrels per day of production that could come online within or near Parnell’s 10-year window.
Wielechowski and Walker, who both campaigned to repeal SB 21 in 2014, should simply admit they were wrong and stop embarrassing themselves with claims to the contrary.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Wednesday, October 18, 2017 - 12:38 pm
After President Barack Obama used Congressional intransigence as an excuse to upend the separation of powers spelled out in the Constitution, President Donald Trump is using the same reason to restore it.
Not once, not twice, but more than two dozen times, Obama told audiences and interviewers that the Constitution did not allow him to use an executive order to change the immigration status of millions of people brought to the country illegally as children.
Congress refused to pass the DREAM Act, and Obama proceeded to violate his previous claims by issuing an executive order to create the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, which granted legal status to those who claimed their parents brought them to the United States illegally as children.
A group of state attorneys general promptly sued and a federal district court judge issued an injunction against continued implementation of DACA.
In another case, once the Republican Party took full control of Congress following the 2014 midterm elections it refused to appropriate funds for the Cost Sharing Reduction payments under the Affordable Care Act also known as Obamacare.
Obama’s administration ignored the lack of authorization and continued sending the payments to insurance companies, which led to an unprecedented lawsuit in which the House of Representatives was granted standing to sue the president.
Again, a federal district court judge decided that Obama’s actions were outside the bounds of the Constitution and ruled the payments illegal without an appropriation from Congress. The judge stayed her own ruling as the appeal was processed, and Trump continued to make the payments on a month-to-month basis after inheriting the lawsuit from Obama’s Justice Department as he waited on the GOP to deliver on seven years of promises to repeal and replace Obamacare.
Now, by giving the DACA program an expiration date less than six months away and turning off the illegal CSR payments as of Oct. 13, Trump is forcing Congress to work rather than continue to rely on unconstitutional actions by the executive branch.
Few sights are more amusing lately than watching the unhinged left that has spent every day since Jan. 20 declaring Trump either a tyrant or one in the making now demand that he continue Obama’s acts that have been declared unconstitutional by federal courts.
Just days after Trump announced an end to the CSR payments, Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chair Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and ranking Democrat Sen. Patty Murray announced the outline of a deal that would restore the payments with an actual appropriation from Congress and create more flexibility for states through block granting the funds and expediting the Section 1332 waiver process.
The 1332 “innovation waivers” under the Affordable Care Act allow states to create programs suited to their needs and allow federal funding for them so long as they are deficit neutral.
Alaska received one of the first such waivers earlier this year after creating a reinsurance program in 2016 as Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield, its lone remaining insurer serving the individual market, was considering rate hikes of as much as 42 percent for 2017 after increases of nearly 40 percent in the previous two years that shot the state’s premiums to the highest in the country at nearly $1,000 per month for a silver plan.
Using an existing fee structure on every insurance policy sold in the state, the state directed $55 million to offset the costs of the few dozen high-cost customers in the small individual pool, which led to a much smaller rate increase of 7 percent this year.
The cost of premium support tax credits that go to about 90 percent of the individual pool dropped dramatically. The 1332 waiver will now allow money that would have gone to premium support to flow to the reinsurance program — with savings for both the state and federal government — and the end result being Alaska is likely the only state in the country to not see a rate hike in 2018. In fact, Premera’s rates will drop by more than 21 percent.
Alaska’s premiums will still rank highest in the nation, but at least there was some progress and it is a good thing that the HELP Committee, of which Sen. Lisa Murkowski is a member, heard from Alaska Division of Insurance Director Lori Wing-Heier about how the state’s return to isolating its high-risk pool from generally healthier customers helped lower costs.
The fate of the Alexander-Murray proposal is far from certain, but having a Democrat of Murray’s stature on board is precisely the outcome that Murkowski has been clamoring for and one that wouldn’t have happened had Trump not returned to constitutional order and forced Congress to do its job by ending the illegal CSR payments.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Wednesday, September 27, 2017 - 10:58 am
Gov. Bill Walker appears to have not learned his lesson when calling a special session.
After the Legislature went all 121 days it was allowed this year without producing a budget or a way to pay for it, Walker called a special session with a loaded agenda that proved a recipe for disaster as the divided House and Senate exerted their respective leverage over the various pieces and it ended after 30 days at the same stalemate.
Now with a government shutdown looming, Walker called another special session with one agenda item: the operating budget. With no leverage over each other and an understanding of the consequences of not passing a budget by June 30, the House and Senate were finally able to agree on something and accomplished their one constitutionally-mandated task.
After the operating budget was agreed upon June 22, Walker added a second item to the session: ending the cashable credit program for North Slope explorers and small producers.
Again, with one item to consider and with both sides understanding the need to end a program with a $1 billion liability to the state budget, the House and Senate eventually agreed to kill the program retroactively to the start of the current fiscal year on July 1.
By this point the per diem counters were running and the public anger was growing over legislators collecting thousands of dollars per day while only a handful were actually involved in the heavy lifting of negotiation.
Acknowledging that anger, Walker declared he would not call a third special session until a capital budget bill was ready to pass. Like the limited call of the second session, with one thing to work on the House and Senate leaders finalized a deal and were able to come to order for a single day and pass it.
With the fourth special session of the year now set to begin Oct. 23, Walker has set himself up for another failure.
The agenda is limited to just two items, neither of which is the use of Permanent Fund earnings to cover the budget deficit that have passed in some form by both the House and Senate in the last two years.
Instead of putting a version of one of those bills on the call, Walker chose instead to introduce an income tax that will effectively end the Permanent Fund Dividend and create two classes of Alaskans: those who get one and those who don’t.
This proposal — unlike his veto to set the PFD at $1,000 in 2016 or the Legislature’s decision to set it at $1,100 this year — is the real fundamental change because Alaskans are no longer treated equally as the program intended.
What Walker is pitching is that the PFD be reduced by half from what it would be under the current statutory formula and the remaining half would be taxed away from those making more than $75,000 per year.
Quite simply, some Alaskan income earners would get a PFD and some would not, which transforms it from an equal distribution into a welfare program.
The governor can cite spending cuts until he turns blue in defense of his tax plan, yet he cannot point to any structural changes in how state government works to make his pitch because none have happened.
When the state’s largest public employee union contract was negotiated over the past year, Walker’s administration didn’t even achieve bare minimums of a wage freeze or a health plan contribution that resembles the private sector.
The Senate Majority, which has stood fast against any income tax, did not outright reject Walker’s proposal but President Pete Kelly did make a reasonable request for a realistic oil production and revenue forecast.
Currently, the production forecast for this fiscal year is just 459,000 barrels per day that no one believes yet hasn’t been officially revised and isn’t required to be until December.
North Slope production is now tracking even with last year when 529,000 barrels per day flowed through the pipeline in the second straight year of growth after annual declines in every year but 2002 since the peak of 1988.
Through the first 25 days of September, production for the month is averaging 508,000 barrels per day compared to 474,000 barrels per day in the same month a year ago. Prices are also rebounding, which combined with production and the success of the financial managers at the Permanent Fund changes the state fiscal picture greatly.
If the goal is to get something done, Walker’s special session call makes no sense. If the goal is to set up an election that will feature class warfare between those who want an income tax and those who don’t it will be a smashing success.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Wednesday, September 06, 2017 - 12:19 pm
The first step to solving a problem is admitting one exists.
Alaska education officials have finally crossed that threshold after releasing the results from math, science and English tests administered this past spring to more than 70,000 students across the state in grades 3 through 10.
The outcomes were shockingly poor.
Fewer than 15 percent of 10th graders statewide scored proficient in math; for English only 38.4 percent scored proficient or better. More disturbing still is looking at the bar charts that show a steady decline in proficiency from grade 3 to grade 10.
In math, 44.5 percent of third graders scored proficient or better. That’s not great, but it is a starting point for improvement. Instead there is a steady path downward at every grade level before bottoming out at 14.7 percent in grade 10.
“We have to be dissatisfied with the current results,” said Alaska Education Commissioner Michael Johnson.
Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop was even more blunt.
“Our scores stink,” she told KTUU.
If anything, she understated the situation for the state’s largest local school system.
In the ASD, just 12.2 percent of 10th graders scored proficient in math and a miniscule 2.2 percent as advanced. One in four 10th graders were far below proficient and another 60 percent were below proficient.
In English, a whopping 38.3 percent of ASD 10th graders scored far below proficient while just less than one in three scored as proficient or advanced.
There can be no pointing to an urban-rural divide in outcomes for the state education system when the district with every advantage possible is failing in such epic fashion.
Back in February, Herb Schroeder, the founder of the wildly successful Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program, released a study that tracks with the poor results of the state testing by showing that more than half of incoming freshmen from state high schools require at least one remedial course in math or English.
In one particularly ugly data set, Schroeder found that 74 percent of students from five high schools ranging in size and location required remediation despite graduating with an average GPA of 3.16.
What that means is students who qualified for state performance scholarships were unprepared for basic college work.
At the time, many superintendents faulted his study. None should dare question his conclusions now.
Schroeder has since estimated that the cost of remediation between students and the state pushes $42 million per year. Considering the state spends more than $1.3 billion per year on education, it is often paying twice to educate students.
A state with budget deficits topping $2 billion per year cannot afford to spend this much money on a failing system; what it can afford even less is to continue churning out unprepared students.
The state doesn’t need another task force or committee to find solutions. It needs a single mission: To teach English, math and science first, second and last.
Fluffy social science, arts and expensive extracurricular activities must take a backseat to the old fashioned basics. There is no alternative.
The solution is surely not what is found on the ASD website under guidance for parents about state exams that advises: “Encourage your child. Praise him/her for the things they do well. If your child feels confident, he/she will likely do their best on a test.”
This kind of touchy-feely nonsense that has plagued our education system for decades has got to stop. “Feeling confident” is not how to pass a test. Confidence flows from preparation, not from empty praise.
Another thing that has to stop is the misguided focus on graduation rates.
Graduating is obviously important, but it is the academic equivalent of the participation trophy if the end result is merely passing students through the system without educating them.
Schroeder has built the ANSEP success from the middle school level up by ensuring students are not only prepared to enter college, but prepared to excel. That hasn’t happened by lowering standards and social promotion.
A total overhaul must start now for an education system that is crippling our next generation.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Tuesday, August 22, 2017 - 8:34 pm
From being Hitler to being a Russian tool and now back to being a Nazi, President Donald Trump has come full circle.
For the left and the media, although that is redundant, nothing feels so comfortable as returning to their safe space governed by Godwin’s Law.
“Why do Nazis like you?” one bylined operative yelled at the president on Aug. 15.
“Do you support the Confederacy?” asked another, who presumably had a credential that wasn’t signed in crayon.
The media works itself into a frothy rage daily over Trump, but its members were in a particular frenzy this day over his latest high crime and misdemeanor of blaming both sides for engaging in violence in Charlottesville.
For eight years the press was sent swooning over President Barack Obama and his love of nuance such as citing the Crusades a thousand years ago as a reason to not “get on our high horse” about the unending radical Islamic terrorism of today.
The left adores this kinds of nuance. Just get into a conversation with one of its members about the implications of widespread radical Islamic terrorism and be assured of a counter in the next breath with something about abortion clinic bombings that have a cumulative death toll of less than the Barcelona attack just last week.
Trump’s sin wasn’t failing to condemn white supremacists harshly enough. His sin was noting the political violence that is practiced, perfected and preferred by the left.
Let’s just be real. Nothing Trump said that Saturday after Charlottesville would be acceptable to the media and the left, and anything he said would be used against him.
In other words, the narrative has been set. The media just fills in the stories like Mad Libs.
Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski, along with pretty much every other Republican, then jumped at the chance for their cameos in a storyline that’s been running longer than The Simpsons entitled “Republicans are Nazis.”
Both their statements accused the president of not going far enough in denouncing the white supremacists, with Murkowski bizarrely equating the group that took to the streets armed with makeshift tear gas, clubs and bags of urine as standing up to hate.
Just how far do you have to go to denounce white supremacists and Nazis? The entire premise of the question is insulting and Republicans should treat it with the disdain it deserves instead of issuing plaintive statements about “I hate Nazis times infinity!”
Where have Sullivan and Murkowski been for the last year? Surely they have at least heard of a movement oxy-moronically known as “antifa” (anti-fascist) that has been wreaking havoc from city to city with near-impunity attacking anyone and everyone its members find guilty of “hate speech.”
This didn’t start in Charlottesville, and it isn’t going to end there either. The entire political establishment and the left declaring antifa the good guys just standing up to Nazis lessens the chances of it ending anytime soon.
Taking sides with antifa against the Nazis is like taking sides in the Bloods versus the Crips or the Hatfields versus the McCoys.
Antifa has already been emboldened by its success shutting down conservative speakers, destroying property and assaulting anyone in a Make America Great Again hat all the while flouting laws prohibiting the wearing of masks in public that were originally passed to confront the Ku Klux Klan.
Just two months ago, a radicalized Bernie Sanders supporter shot up a baseball field full of Murkowski’s and Sullivan’s fellow Republicans and somehow it is still a problem for Trump to condemn violence on the left as well as the right.
Instead of competing over who can say they hate Nazis the most, it would be nice of senators from a freedom-loving state to stand up for the First Amendment.
Larry Flynt, 2 Live Crew and the KKK are not the people you would invite to dinner, but those are the ones who have had to go to court defended by the likes of the American Civil Liberties Union to protect their First Amendment rights.
The First Amendment doesn’t exist to protect Big Bird and the Smothers Brothers.
With narrow exceptions, the First Amendment has been construed absolutely. One person’s standard of offense cannot be used to prohibit speech by another, and though politicians of both parties have often sought to limit various speech based on their own standards they have not prevailed over the Constitution.
We are a nation of rights and of laws, or we are nothing at all.
Descending into a nation of mob rule against political opposition is where antifa wants to take us. Anyone who has been watching knows they have a pretty wide definition of who is a Nazi, and Murkowski and Sullivan are probably already on the list.
After all, they’re Republicans.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Wednesday, August 02, 2017 - 12:13 pm
Senate Republicans have set the bar pretty high for achievements in failure.
By bungling their attempt to repeal or replace Obamacare, they accomplished the impossible: they now own a law that none of them voted for in the first place and in fact campaigned for seven years to scrap.
Of course there is a sound argument to be made that Sens. Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins and John McCain have indeed voted for Obamacare by casting the decisive votes to kill the “skinny repeal” bill and derailing a conference committee process to reconcile with the bill passed earlier this year by the House of Representatives.
Bizarrely, some Republican members of the Senate are now asking President Donald Trump to continue bailing out the disastrous legislation by maintaining the payments to insurance companies that were ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge in May 2016.
In an unprecedented case, the U.S. House successfully sued the Obama administration for making the billions worth of payments annually despite the fact there was no congressional appropriation to do so.
Expecting an appeal, the judge who found in favor of the House argument stayed her order pending resolution of the case, which allowed President Barack Obama to continue sending the unauthorized cash to insurance companies in cost-sharing reimbursements, or CSRs.
Trump has held off on the appeal and kept up the CSRs despite their dubious legal status since he took office while giving Congress a chance to deliver on the promises made since voters handed them the majority in the House in 2010, the Senate in 2014 and the White House in 2016.
But now he is threatening to stop the payments and let one of the greatest flaws in the law take effect instead of papering over the problem by shoveling billions more in taxpayer and borrowed dollars out the door.
Ever since Obamacare passed in March 2010 there have been multiple waivers and delays of its worst features to cover up just how bad it is. The GOP was even complicit in this in 2015 when the party voted to delay implementation of the so-called “Cadillac tax” on expensive health insurance policies that would sweep up virtually every union plan in the country and is vehemently opposed by labor groups.
All of the “popular” parts of Obamacare — Medicaid expansion, coverage of preexisting conditions, staying on a parent’s policy until age 26 — were allowed to take effect immediately while the worst parts were put off as states got hooked on the federal sugar.
Having fallen on their faces trying to repeal or replace Obamacare and lacking the political will to actually appropriate funds for the CSRs, Trump is being set up as the fall guy by his party if he doesn’t keep up the payments that very same party successfully sued to stop.
The other threat Trump has made is to reverse Obama’s decision through the Office of Personnel Management to classify Congress as a “small business” despite its 20,000 employees. That OPM action allowed the federal government to keep contributing 72 percent of congressional employee premiums despite the fact individuals on the exchanges are otherwise not allowed to receive such benefits.
Obamacare has been held together through a patchwork of carveouts, bailouts and handouts, executive orders and illegal payments all designed to mislead the public about its costs and negative impacts.
If the only way to spur Congress to act is to allow those negative impacts to take place then so be it, and sooner rather than later.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Wednesday, July 26, 2017 - 12:17 pm
Alaska has less oil production than California and a credit rating just better than Illinois and New Jersey, yet 51 incumbents will run for reelection next year with at least one of them seeking a promotion.
A day after this column goes to press, the Legislature will meet for a day in Juneau to pass the capital budget that — like everything else its members did or didn’t do this session — should have been finished three months ago.
The self-congratulatory back-patting is nauseating.
Instead of passing a bill both sides agreed upon to use Permanent Fund earnings in a sustainable fashion to cover part of the budget, the Legislature burned through another $2.5 billion from the Constitutional Budget Reserve.
Instead of passing an increase in the motor fuels tax to fund transportation projects and address a growing backlog of deferred maintenance — again, that both sides agreed to — they did nothing and pulled the money from the general fund.
Instead of beginning to settle the hundreds of millions in unpaid liabilities owed to small oil companies that already spent the money in good faith, the Legislature ended the program and will stiff those companies for a third straight year after Gov. Bill Walker vetoed $630 million in payments in 2015 and 2016.
Deadbeat and do-nothing barely begins to cover it.
While much of the blame lies with the Democrat-led House Majority for dragging out the process for months in their insistence to institute a $700 million income tax on an economy in recession and double or triple oil production taxes as the industry sheds thousands of jobs, the Senate Majority and Walker can shoulder some responsibility for hanging the state’s breadwinning business out to dry.
Sure, the Senate tried to pay off about half the outstanding credit bills in its version of the capital budget but its negotiators folded like linen and are taking less than a tenth of what they proposed in the “compromise” budget set to pass July 27.
The biggest crock coming from everyone in Juneau is that the state can’t afford to pay off the tax credits. Between the Permanent Fund Earnings Reserve and what’s left in the Constitutional and Statutory budget reserves, the state has about $15 billion.
For less than 5 percent of that balance the state could pay what it owes, put this debacle behind us and restore some semblance of credibility to its self-proclaimed “partner” status with the oil business.
If the state and the oil business were partners, there would be one who does all the work and generates the company revenue while the other lazes around the office spending the money, giving itself annual raises, letting invoices pile up and demanding an ever-increasing share of the profits.
The Senate Majority can talk a good game about wanting to pay the bills, but every one of its members were fine with skipping out on the Downtown Anchorage office building they commissioned and leaving its owners on the hook for a $28 million loan and losing their $9 million cash position.
There is no squaring the circle of arguing the damage caused to small companies by holding out on tax credits owed while ignoring the financial ruin put on a pair of Anchorage real estate developers who made the mistake of relying on the signed commitments of the Legislature.
Some have and will counter that both the oil companies and the developers knew what they were getting into and should have no recourse, which is akin to the parable of the woman and the snake.
After nursing the injured snake back to health, the snake eventually bites the woman and as she’s dying of the poison she asks, “Why? I was your friend.”
“Lady, you knew I was a snake when you picked me up.”
That won’t be anyone’s campaign slogan next year, but at least it would be an honest one.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Wednesday, July 19, 2017 - 1:23 pm
The only conclusion that can be drawn from watching D.C. Republicans vomit all over themselves in their pathetic efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare is that they were just as surprised as Democrats when Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton.
After spending the past seven years campaigning and fundraising on promises to scrap the widely unpopular law — and being rewarded with total control of all three branches of government — the GOP has found out what it’s like to be the dog that catches the car.
The destructive fallout from Obamacare isn’t the only thing that can be traced back to 2010. Just as the law laid the foundation for the Democrats’ decimation from the local to the national level over the next two midterm cycles, another event that year set the stage for the Republicans’ embarrassing self-inflicted defeat this past week in Congress.
After Joe Miller’s stunning upset of Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the Alaska Republican primary, she decided to run as a write-in candidate and eventually triumphed to seal her status in the state’s political history alongside Rep. Don Young and the late Sen. Ted Stevens as virtually untouchable.
Before refusing to support the Republican nominee, Murkowski was one of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s favored lieutenants in his so-called “kitchen cabinet.”
Once she decided to go it alone without the party’s support, McConnell was forced to remove her from that inner circle status, although he allowed her to keep her committee seniority in a move that has paid dividends since the GOP took over the Senate in 2014 and landed her the chairmanship of Energy and Natural Resources.
Now it is clear that McConnell would have benefitted from having Murkowski’s advice, not just on the flawed process on repealing and replacing Obamacare, but general best political practices.
When the GOP took over the Senate in 2014, helped by Sen. Dan Sullivan’s defeat of Mark Begich in Alaska, Murkowski tempered her literal chair-wielding enthusiasm with the best way forward.
“If Republicans fail to govern, if we say our responsibility is just to win the next cycle, we won’t win,” she said at Sullivan’s victory party. “We will not be in charge. We will not be setting the agenda. We will not be legislating.
“We have our chance now. This is our time and if the American public doesn’t see us doing the hard work, then we’re going to be shown the exit just as the Democrats have been this cycle.”
As the unbelievable news was sinking in this past November with Trump winning and the GOP holding the Senate, barely, Murkowski echoed her 2014 comments.
“This isn’t Christmas,” she said. “We still have to govern.”
She warned early on in the repeal-and-replace process that closed-door meetings would not produce a victory, and she was proven right yet again.
Murkowski’s bipartisanship and care to craft sound policy are so rare in D.C. that she probably qualifies for an Endangered Species Act listing.
The GOP could start listening to her for a change, or the entire party is going to be on a milk carton come 2018.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Thursday, July 13, 2017 - 12:16 pm
If the House Democrats keep up these futile political gestures, someday they may grow up to be Congressional Republicans.
The latest last-second nonsense from the Democrats managed to top their ridiculous vote in June when they introduced — and approved with the help of half the Republican caucus — a $2,200 PFD as they stuffed the operating budget into the capital budget bill before adjourning the first special session called by Gov. Bill Walker.
Now with three days to go in the current second special session, House Democrats introduced another non-starter July 12 with their proposal to simply end net operating loss deductions for oil companies in a hopeless gambit to force the Senate to the table to rewrite the entire oil tax structure.
Once again the House Democrats look clueless about the amount of leverage they hold and reveal their claimed concern for stability in the oil industry means jack and squat.
Walker, rather than hold another press conference that says and does nothing, could put a quick end to the Democrats’ games by declaring what kind of bill he will sign.
He could simply say, “I will not sign a bill that raises taxes or cuts deductions, so don’t bother sending me one.”
There’s no chance the Senate would ever approve such a bill, but such a statement from Walker would send a strong message to the House to stop jerking around.
A couple statements at the Wednesday hearing from the House Resources co-chairs Andy Josephson and Geran Tarr were laughable.
Tarr repeatedly said that the Constitutional Budget Reserve is empty because it will be drawn down to about $2 billion after covering the deficit for the 2018 fiscal year.
Setting aside her definition of “empty” regarding the state’s cash flow, what she never mentioned is that the $2.5 billion CBR draw wouldn’t have happened if the House had agreed to pass a bill to use the Permanent Fund earnings to help fund the budget.
Instead, just like ending the cashable oil credits, the House demanded a $700 million income tax and killed a necessary fiscal reform on which both sides agree in their quixotic quest for new and higher taxes.
As an argument for ending the net operating loss deductions with a deadline to compel action for a replacement system, Josephson said the Legislature does its Christmas shopping on Christmas Eve.
In case he hasn’t noticed, the Legislature is currently doing its Christmas shopping in March because the House has sabotaged the areas where there is agreement by making demands where there is none.
If House Democrats truly believe the public is on their side when it comes to instituting an income tax and raising taxes on oil, by all means run 51 state races next year on that platform and see how that goes.
The Democrats have a twisted idea of what compromise means. To them it means “give us everything we want or we’ll kill the deal.” An actual compromise would be both sides setting aside what they can’t get and taking what they both want.
For the state budget situation, a sustainable draw on the Permanent Fund earnings and an end to cashable credits are both huge accomplishments for which both sides could take credit.
But the Democrats would apparently rather keep accruing cash liabilities of $1 million per day in their attempt to squeeze $50 million out of the oil industry, and use the CBR instead of the Fund earnings because they can’t have an income tax.
The Democrats’ tax proposals would make the current recession worse, and their refusal to act on the areas of agreement are doing the same to the state budget.
Senate Republicans can run circles around the House Majority all day. It’s time for Walker to step up and tell the Democrats to stop wasting everyone’s time and money.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Monday, July 03, 2017 - 1:55 pm
What’s been obvious for several months became official on June 30.
The 2017 fiscal year ended with a final average of 528,484 barrels per day of production on the North Slope.
That is a 2.6 percent increase versus the 514,900 barrels per day last fiscal year, or virtually identical to the 2016 increase in production from 501,500 barrels per day in 2015.
To put this in perspective, the last time the state saw consecutive years of production increases was in 1987-88 when North Slope production peaked at more than 2.1 million barrels per day.
This would be a remarkable story in any circumstance given the number of early obituaries that have been written for North Slope production and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, but it is even more so considering the price environment and the ongoing attacks on the industry from Democrats in Juneau.
North Slope crude averaged barely more than the breakeven point at less than $50 per barrel for the fiscal year and the House Majority continues to demand tax increases on production despite the proof of the current policy’s success staring them in the face from the Department of Revenue’s daily reports.
The House Democrats want to double the effective tax rate at the current price, triple it should prices reach $70 per barrel, reduce deductions and eliminate the proven per-barrel incentive.
The per-barrel production incentive is the only explanation why companies have continued to invest billions on the North Slope even after prices started to free fall not long after Senate Bill 21 took effect.
They have certainly not seen the upside from the reduction in progressivity at high prices under SB 21; to the contrary they have paid far more in taxes than they would have had ACES remained in place.
Under ACES they wouldn’t be paying any production taxes at the current price. In fact, they wouldn’t be paying production taxes until prices went past $63 per barrel.
Because SB 21 taxes oil at a higher rate than ACES at low prices, the companies have taken the only tool at their disposal to reduce the effective tax rate: more production.
Every additional barrel brings down the effective tax rate. It’s that simple, and it is a win-win for the producers and the state, which collects both the tax revenue and the additional royalty share.
But never let a good fact get in the way of a Democrat argument.
SB 21, which took effect Jan. 1, 2014, has now been in place for three full fiscal years.
Since fiscal year 2013, the last full year of ACES, production has declined by a barely-measurable 0.6 percent overall (531,600 barrels per day to 528,400).
That is an average annual decline rate of just 0.2 percent.
The average annual decline rate during six years of ACES was 5 percent, or 2,500 percent greater than under SB 21.
Math — the Democrats’ kryptonite — tells a staggering story when comparing where we’d be under the ACES decline rate versus SB 21.
Had the 5 percent annual decline rate continued, fiscal year 2017 production would be 433,000 barrels per day, or about 95,500 fewer barrels per day than what we saw under SB 21.
Adding up the actual production compared to the ACES decline rate over the past four years, the state has collected tax and royalty income from an additional 75.3 million barrels; the 2017 production versus ACES decline alone is an extra 34.8 million barrels.
Democrats’ oil tax policies aren’t just bad. They are proven failures.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]