Posted Wednesday, March 15, 2017 - 10:50 am
The first time Bill Armstrong met former Gov. Sean Parnell several years back he pointed at a map of the North Slope and told him where he intended to find a huge amount of oil.
A confident Texas wildcatter is about as uncommon as a member of the House Majority that wants to raise taxes on the oil industry, but only one of them is actually good for Alaska.
As information has trickled out over the years since Armstrong and his former majority partner Repsol began exploring, he has been proven more and more right.
First there were initial drilling results that Repsol described as successful, and led to some preliminary paperwork being filed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that indicated potential production of 60,000 barrels per day.
That alone would have been a significant find, but it got better.
About a year later in late 2015, Armstrong swapped positions with Repsol to become the majority 51 percent owner and operator of the find, and the production estimate from the discovery in what’s now known as the Nanushuk play in the Pikka Unit doubled to 120,000 barrels per day.
Armstrong bought leases and drilled them this winter some 20 miles from his initial find, establishing that the Nanushuk play discovered at Pikka could easily hold more than 2 billion barrels of recoverable, high quality conventional oil.
Repsol billed this winter’s results as the biggest onshore conventional discovery in 30 years in a press release March 9.
Just five days later, and only four days after the bill was introduced, the House Resources Committee expressed its appreciation for the Armstrong-Repsol work by reducing the net present value of their discovery with legislation that would cut their deductions for development and raise their taxes across every range of prices once they reach production.
The process for the Resources Committee substitute bill was so rushed that a fiscal note from the Department of Natural Resources regarding the impact of provisions requiring approval of certain lease expenditures ranged from “minimal to significant.”
There has been no modeling on potential production impacts from raising taxes and cutting development deductions.
Talk about passing a bill to find out what’s in it.
This is just the latest episode in the neverending quest by Alaska Democrats to create a “heads we win, tails you lose” oil tax policy that isolates the state from the risk of exploration and low prices while allowing it to capture a majority share of the upside when a company like Armstrong or ConocoPhillips is successful.
Here’s what we do know about production.
During the last full fiscal year of the previous tax policy known as ACES that ended June 30, 2013, North Slope production was 531,000 barrels. That was down more than 200,000 barrels per day in the six years of ACES, or an annual decline rate of 5 percent.
Current North Slope production is averaging 520,000 barrels per day, which averages out to a 0.5 percent decline rate in just less than four years, or 10 times better than the rate under ACES.
Should the 5 percent decline rate have continued, we would be at about 433,000 barrels per day rather than the current 520,000. That adds up to 31.7 million additional barrels over just one year.
Democrats will cry til the cows come home that you can’t make a connection between the first production increase in 14 years with the tax policy they have staked so much political capital in overturning.
At current production rates, the North Slope will blow away the state forecast of 490,000 barrels per day and it is still a possibility we could see a second straight year of growth if the fiscal year finishes in June with a daily average greater than 514,000 per day.
It is always wise to not assume that correlation (production increasing) implies causation (changing oil tax policy in 2013).
But it is also a sound conclusion to recognize that the current tax law has certainly not hurt the state from a production or revenue standpoint. (The cashable exploration credits that are the source of so much budget angst predate the More Alaska Production Act by nearly a decade.)
It’s indisputable we’d receive no production taxes at current prices under ACES compared to about $2 per barrel under current law.
That doesn’t consider the royalty share either, which ranges from 12.5 percent to 16.6 percent off the top and means the state has unquestionably benefited from the near-complete reversal of the previous decline rate despite the price collapse.
The Democrat leaders of the House Resources Committee are not wrong in their attempt to ensure the state is getting maximum value for either its direct cash investments in development or foregone revenue in exchange for additional production.
However, it seems the only place Democrats are willing to examine return on investment regarding state spending is where oil tax policy is concerned.
They certainly have no interest in determining whether our health and education policies are working as those departments soak up billions in the annual budget while producing results that are mixed at best.
Any claim to the contrary is nothing more than the same lip service House Democrats paid to repairing the state’s reputation as an unreliable business partner while working behind the scenes to cement it.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Wednesday, March 01, 2017 - 1:00 pm
As Ron Burgundy may say, “That escalated quickly.”
Things went sideways not long after House Resources Committee Co-Chair Garen Tarr, D-Anchorage, began a Feb. 22 hearing that was, in her words, to hear from the state’s “industry partners” about the oil tax increases proposed in House Bill 111 introduced by her and her fellow Democrats on the body.
Less than six minutes later, Tarr put the smack down on the lead representative of the state’s partners, Alaska Oil and Gas Association President Kara Moriarty.
Moriarty was in the middle of responding to the presentation two days earlier by the Legislature’s latest oil and gas consultant, Rich Ruggiero, who’d asserted that tax policy changes were a constant around the world and Alaska shouldn’t feel bad about tinkering with its system for the seventh time in the last 12 years.
Backing up that claim, Ruggiero used a slide from IHS CERA plotting the changes by regimes around the world from 2001 to 2011.
Former Resources Chair Rep. Dave Talerico, R-Healy, asked Ruggiero if he had updated information from 2012 to the present that would show how regimes have responded to the price crash that accelerated in late 2015 and early 2016.
“You had mentioned ‘if you had the rest of the years,’” Talerico said. “Is there any chance you might be able to finish this out to 2016 and maybe provide that information to the co-chairs?”
In response, Ruggiero said this: “That would be quite an extensive effort, and I’m not sure what it would inform. Which is why I stated on the slide titled ‘forward’ that some of these slides are dated. The message they’re telling is that Alaska should not be embarrassed or feel bad that it is changing its fiscal system because the regimes around the world where most of the money is being spent are changing their regimes as often or even more often than Alaska is.”
Ruggiero, by the way, is being paid $35,000.
Talerico looked a bit bemused.
“I guess that means no,” he said. “I would like to see even North America if possible.”
At that point Tarr asked Ruggiero to see what he could provide and he said he’d see what he could come up with before coming to Alaska the following week.
The committee didn’t have to wait that long, because Moriarty found the updated slide from IHS in a report to by the Oil and Gas Competitiveness Review Board from May 2016 that is hosted on the state Revenue Department website. She also got IHS to email it to her.
Not much of an “extensive effort” and quite a bargain considering the Legislature isn’t paying Moriarty anything, let alone $35,000.
What the slide shows is that in January 2016 while prices bottomed out at about $26 per barrel, every regime that changed its policy offered incentives, not tax increases such as those proposed by Tarr and her fellow Democrats.
Before getting into what riled up Tarr against Moriarty, it’s important to know what Ruggiero said on Feb. 20.
On his very first slide, he stated: “Working from a common understanding will help everyone better understand the input that will be received from various respondents putting forth self-serving opinions.”
Then a couple slides later he went into the “detractor themes” guaranteed to be deployed by the oil industry in response to increasing government take, namely stability, competition and jobs.
The next bullet point stated: “In their world there is no concept of the operator earning too much and a government earning too little.”
Later he said of the companies, “they’re not charities,” which is a bit rich from a guy who is hardly working pro bono himself.
He’d probably have an interesting opinion on a bill that would tax consultant income at a rate of 65 percent, which is roughly the government take on oil revenue between federal, state and local taxes. He might even have a thought about whether anyone would work for the Legislature if they were going to be taxed at such a rate.
Ruggiero portrayed the industry representatives as robotically repeating the same thing over and over no matter the circumstance.
“Part of what you have to do is decipher from that message is what’s really critical or will chill industry or negatively hurt the state versus their natural inclination, that they have to come out and say whatever takes money out of their pocket is a bad thing,” he said.
All this time as Ruggiero told the committee to tune out the oil companies as speaking from an agenda, Tarr never interrupted and never cautioned him not to question the motives of the industry partners she would later be calling to testify.
So after Moriarty explained how easily she found the updated information, she said, “Having your consultant share older data from other consultants may demonstrate that he either didn’t take enough time for his presentation, or he is possibly using the data to drive an agenda —”
At this point Tarr cut her off.
“Miss Moriarty, we’re not going to make statements like that in this committee,” Tarr said. “So you’re not going to impugn the motives of that individual. If you want to respond to anything that was said, that’s fine. But we’re not going to do that.”
Tarr’s anger should have been directed at Ruggiero, who’s being paid not a small amount of money to present outdated information and act as though getting new information is going to be an “extensive effort.”
It should also probably be directed at him for, to his credit, repeatedly stating that governments typically lower taxes and increase incentives in a low price environment, which is the exact opposite of what Tarr’s bill would do.
Moriarty further corrected Tarr on her statement Feb. 20 that the industry requested “half” of the six tax changes in the last 12 years. Moriarty noted that the oil business supported the current tax policy because of the elimination of progressivity at high prices even though it was concerned about the 35 percent base tax rate.
She pointed out that industry supported the Cook Inlet Recovery Act in 2010, but that bill didn’t originate at its request. It came out of the Legislature in response to looming natural gas shortages for the state’s population center.
“We supported two out of seven if you count the one before you,” Moriarty said.
If Tarr wants witnesses to stick to the facts and not make unfounded accusations against others she’s going to need to start with herself.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Wednesday, February 01, 2017 - 12:08 pm
Dating back to before statehood, Alaskans know that overfishing is a bad thing.
Stopping overfishing of salmon and regaining control of the resource was in fact one of the driving forces in the effort to become a state.
What we know about sustainability of our vast fisheries resources is worth applying to yet another debate over another immense asset — our oil — and the means by which that resource is taxed.
Get ready for more proclamations from Democrats, soft Republicans and the friends of Gov. Bill Walker about receiving “our fair share” of the resource through taxation and the debunked claims that the 2013 oil tax reform was a “giveaway” to industry.
The “Alaska model,” as it has come to be known, holds an overarching policy to prevent overfishing and though the enshrinement of sustained yield in the state constitution it has largely been a success.
The reason is simple: while there may be short-term economic benefits to harvesting nearly every fish in the sea, the long-term effect will be to destroy the resource. Some of the fish must be allowed to reproduce to sustain populations in perpetuity.
It isn’t a difficult concept to understand, but when it comes to the oil industry there is a large segment of the population and their politicians who don’t get it.
True, oil, unlike fish, is not a renewable resource. But capital is.
Certainly it is tempting to want to collect every dollar possible from the oil business through taxation, but doing so robs the companies of the investment capital they require to expand existing fields and to discover new ones. In the long run, overtaxing will wreck the economic engine of Alaska in the same way that overfishing decimated the salmon resource.
The cashable tax credits whose origin in policy date back to the 2006 Petroleum Profits Tax have received the bulk of the attention for the deficit-stricken state budget as the tab is running to nearly $1 billion by the end of next fiscal year.
Dealing with the credits is a cash flow problem, however, and the more troubling effort is what is likely to come from either the governor or the new House majority to increase the tax on production.
The leaders of the new House majority and the governor opposed the 2013 production tax reforms and campaigned for the repeal and return to the previous system known as ACES in 2014.
Those critics of the current policy keep pointing to the low production tax revenue at current prices as proof that the regime is a “disaster,” as Senate gadfly Bill Wielechowski endlessly repeats.
Yet according to Walker’s Revenue Department, under ACES the state would have received zero — yes, zero — production tax revenue in fiscal years 2016 through 2018 and the current policy took in more than ACES would have in fiscal year 2015.
In fact, under ACES the state would receive no production tax revenue until the price climbs north of $63 per barrel.
ACES does collect more revenue at higher prices, but returning to the parallel of overfishing, at what cost?
There is no disputing that production declined by an average of 6 percent per year under ACES while the state share averaged 41 percent.
There is no disputing that ConocoPhillips, the most active explorer on the North Slope since 2000, did not look for oil from 2010-12 despite sky-high prices.
There is no dispute that under oil tax reform, we’ve seen no decline in fiscal year 2014, a slight dip in 2015 amid a record amount of drilling and workovers, followed by the first increase in 14 years in 2016.
What’s amazing about the results of the 2013 reform is that oil companies haven’t even seen the upside of it yet.
They have seen prices collapse to the point where losses have amounted to billions in the upstream segment — ConocoPhillips lost more than $4 billion in 2015 and another $1 billion in the first quarter of 2016 — and they are paying more in taxes at these prices than they would have under ACES.
What the 2013 oil tax reform proved is that allowing companies just the prospect of keeping more of their capital to reinvest is enough of an incentive to spur development and discovery even during a brutal price environment.
Not many would have thought when 2016 began with prices bottoming out at $26 per barrel that the year would end with a production increase and hugely successful North Slope lease sale.
The supporters of oil tax reform were proven right, but the fight isn’t yet over against those who would crush the North Slope through overtaxing the way the canneries nearly did to salmon by overfishing.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Wednesday, January 18, 2017 - 12:20 pm
We aren’t hearing much from the opponents of the 2013 oil tax reform lately.
Facts tend to get in the way of rhetorical hyperbole, and it appears that reality has finally caught up with Democrats and Gov. Bill Walker, who collectively agitated for the repeal Senate Bill 21 in a 2014 voter referendum.
Losing that fight didn’t end the debate, however.
Nor did the undisputed evidence from Walker’s own Revenue Department that SB 21 was bringing in more money than the previous system as prices started to slide late in 2014.
Record employment and record drilling on the North Slope in 2015 didn’t stop the noise, either.
The 2016 fiscal year increase in production — the first since 2002 — was barely noted as the news came amid a chaotic end to the session and Walker vetoing some $1.3 billion in spending on June 29, about half of which was cutting the Permanent Fund Dividend to $1,000.
The calendar year also closed with an increase in production, which followed by only a couple weeks the third-best lease sale on the North Slope since the area-wide offerings began in 1998.
Now comes the news that ConocoPhillips has followed the Nanushuk formation now under development by Armstrong Energy and Repsol with one of its own in the same play that holds 300 million barrels of oil that could flow at a rate of 100,000 barrels per day.
The Armstrong-Repsol project in the neighboring Pikka Unit could flow at a rate of 120,000 barrels per day.
Those two projects combined are a bit less than half of the current fiscal year average through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System of 510,000 barrels per day, and both companies are further exploring their acreage this winter with the belief there’s even more to be found.
Add in ConocoPhillips’ Greater Mooses Tooth 1 and 2 now in construction and permitting, respectively, and that’s another 60,000 barrels per day with GMT-1 to provide half that total beginning late in 2018.
Should the more longshot prospect being explored by Caelus come to fruition with up to 200,000 barrels per day from Smith Bay, we now have developments that nearly equal the current throughput potentially coming online by the early 2020s.
As we ring in the new year with the state expected to lose 7,500 jobs in 2017 and the sharply divided Legislature convening with its last best chance at fixing a $3 billion-budget deficit, it is the oft-maligned oil industry that is providing a lone ray of hope for the Alaska economy.
When the Legislature inevitably takes up oil tax policy this session, it is important to remember who was completely wrong about SB 21. All of the current developments and the 2016 increase in production would have been at risk if the Democrats and Walker had their way in 2014.
Walker, for his part, had a convenient case of amnesia in responding to the ConocoPhillips announcement after he proposed tax increases on the oil industry just last session.
“It demonstrates that Alaska remains an attractive place to do business and look for oil,” Walker said.
Certainly it does “remain” attractive, but that’s no thanks to Walker or Democrats whose preferred policy resulted in continued annual decline and no discoveries.
It is not hard to draw a straight line from the change in policy in 2013 with the increase in activity and possibly the biggest find since Kuparuk on the North Slope with the Nanushuk play.
ConocoPhillips drilled no exploration wells in 2010, 2011 or 2012. It drilled three last year, made a big find and snapped up hundreds of thousands of acres around its discovery in December despite losing billions in 2015 and 2016 as prices cratered.
The only good thing about that was a temporary pause in Sen. Bill Wielechowski’s banal quarterly press releases pointing to ConocoPhillips profits as a reason to jack up its taxes.
“There is a direct correlation between investment and tax policy,” ConocoPhillips Alaska President Joe Marushack said on Jan. 13 as he described the company’s process for allocating capital between Alaska and the rest of its global portfolio.
“If the tax changes, the economics change, the allocation changes,” he said. “It’s very simple.”
So simple even the Democrats and the governor should be able to get it.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Thursday, January 05, 2017 - 9:59 am
A brutal year in the Alaska oil patch ended on a positive note as calendar year 2016 followed the fiscal year trend with an increase in North Slope production.
Amid the worst price environment since the late 1990s resulting in thousands of layoffs for the oil industry, production grew in the fiscal year ended June 30 and for the calendar year ended Dec. 31.
With an average of about 514,000 barrels per day for the fiscal year and 517,000 for the calendar year, the state’s most recent production forecast for the current fiscal year predicting a drop to 490,000 appears extremely conservative.
After many recent production forecasts have overshot estimates, the state adopted a new, in-house approach that officials acknowledge will result in lower predictions.
Considering the state’s budget woes, erring on the conservative side is certainly not a bad thing. It will also leave room for a pleasant surprise by the end of the fiscal year.
Current North Slope production from July 1 through Jan. 2 is averaging 507,000 barrels per day, far greater than the forecast as the traditional peak production winter months await.
At 490,000 barrels per day, total fiscal year production would amount to nearly 179 million barrels of oil.
At the current production average, the Slope producers have already pumped 94.4 million barrels through Jan. 2.
What that means is that production would have to average 472,287 barrels per day for the rest of the fiscal year to hit the state forecast of 490,000 per day.
While there has no doubt been a pullback in drilling and well workovers from record levels in 2015, there is as of yet no indication that the production will fall by that much from the current daily average.
In the 2016 period from Jan. 2 to the end of the fiscal year on June 30 while prices averaged less than $40 per barrel, North Slope production averaged nearly 527,000 barrels per day.
That means that to hit the state’s production forecast, the daily average would have to drop by about 55,000 barrels per day during the same period of 2017 — a 10.4 percent decline — even though prices have rebounded to better than $50 per barrel since OPEC announced it would cut production back in November.
There is a conspiracy theory out there that the state is intentionally lowballing price and production forecasts to make the state’s fiscal situation appear more dire than it is — and it is dire — in order to make a harder sell for its package of revenue measures and the use of Permanent Fund earnings to plug the budget deficit.
There is no need to go there, but there is a need to push back on those who keep advancing the idea — including Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott — that the state’s days as an oil realm are drawing to a close.
Given the production increases, the third-best lease sale in decades in December and strong prospects under development, the evidence does not back up those who are spinning the end-of-oil narrative.
Gov. Bill Walker has not exactly expressed enthusiasm for prospects by independents Caelus and Armstrong, and his Natural Resources Deputy Commissioner Mark Wiggin reacted to questions about the 2016 production increase not with celebration but with an Eeyorish comment about how we’re not heading back to our peak production days in the late 1980s.
Production increases should be welcomed, not downplayed, and momentum established after the passage of Senate Bill 21 should be sustained rather than stifled.
The North Slope producers gave the state something to feel good about to end the year, and beating the ultra-conservative forecast in the new year would result in a much-needed boost to the bottom line.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Correction: The original version of this column attributed a statement about not returning to late 1980s production levels to Tax Division Director Ken Alper. The statement is actually attributable to Natural Resources Deputy Commissioner Mark Wiggin.
Posted Wednesday, December 28, 2016 - 12:10 pm
Not unlike an evicted renter who plugs the toilets and punches holes in the drywall in a petulant rage against the homeowner, President Barack Obama appears intent on causing as much damage as possible before he’s finally forced to exit the White House on Jan. 20.
In between pointless musings over whether he’d have beaten Donald Trump in a hypothetical matchup for an unconstitutional third term and scapegoat-seeking for Hillary Clinton’s well-deserved loss on Nov. 8, Obama has been wreaking havoc on American industry and our closest ally in the Middle East as his eight disastrous years come to an end.
Ten days after voters rejected Obama’s preferred successor in favor of his complete opposite, he yanked the Beaufort and Chukchi seas from the five-year outer continental shelf leasing plan as a precursor to his near-complete withdrawal of the areas a month later that he and his green mafia believe can’t be reversed under a President Trump.
He’s ignoring the law and the permitting process in an attempt to shut down the Dakota Access Pipeline while his agencies continue to promulgate ridiculous “midnight” rules in defiance of Congress.
It’s nothing new for Obama, who took the shellackings he was handed in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections that cost him the House and the Senate, respectively, not as a message to change course but to continue pushing his rejected agenda on an American public that took its revenge by electing Trump and preserving Republican control of the Senate.
Obama’s policies both domestic and foreign have been a disaster, from the unaffordable “Affordable Care Act” to Libya, Syria, Iraq, Iran and the infamously failed “reset” with Russia that sees him leaving office accusing the dictators he once buddied up to of meddling in the election to defeat Clinton.
The free-wheeling and unfiltered Trump has rattled nerves with his tweets about nuclear arms and actions such as taking a phone call from the Taiwan president, prompting the more hyperbolic to claim he’s going to start World War III with a 3 a.m. Twitter rant.
Instead it is Obama who seems determined to leave Trump with a world teetering on the brink of major conflicts as he floats sanctions against the Russians and stabs Israel in the back with a twist of the knife from the can’t-be-gone-soon-enough Secretary of State John Kerry.
Make no mistake, Israel will not abide by or respect the U.N. Security Council resolution declaring its settlements illegal and Jerusalem to be occupied territory, nor any plans Kerry has for laying out a vision for a peaceful solution after eight years of Obama betraying Israel at every turn and bending over while the Iranians pursue a nuclear weapon.
Israel will not allow itself to be threatened, sanctioned or attacked by its enemies, yet Obama has made another of his endless series of miscalculations in the Middle East that make a widespread conflict more likely, not less.
At least Israel knows it will have a staunch ally once again when Trump takes office, and we will see how far he goes to restore the relationship and whether Congress will follow through on calls from some to defund the U.S. contribution to the United Nations budget.
A better idea couldn’t be imagined than that by columnist Charles Krauthammer that Trump should find a way to kick the U.N. out of New York City and turn the building into condos.
At this rate, President Bill Clinton’s staff taking all the “W” keys off the computers and stealing furniture looks downright cute next to the malevolent Obama as he leaves office filled with anger at the American public who elected a man determined to undo his failed legacy.
The “undo list” is getting pretty long, and Jan. 20 can’t get here soon enough.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Wednesday, December 21, 2016 - 2:35 pm
The next year could be even wilder than 2016, if that’s possible.
In less than a month, Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States and the Alaska Legislature will convene in Juneau for its last serious crack at addressing the state’s burgeoning budget deficits.
It’s almost appropriate that one of Gov. Bill Walker’s last acts of the year was to kill the Juneau Access Project, because the Legislature has run out of road to kick the can.
The state’s savings won’t last more than another year and we’ll have to wait and see whether the dynamic of a three-way power struggle between the Republican Senate, Democrat House and independent governor forces a solution or only produces gridlock worse than what we’ve witnessed in the last two years.
Still, the ringing in of a new year is supposed to bring optimism and in that spirit here is a wildly optimistic wish list for 2017:
Stop pandering and fix the problem
This goes for both the budget hawks and the tax credit hawks heading to Juneau. To the budget hawks: Stop pretending there are hundreds of millions of dollars still to be cut out of the budget.
No doubt there are cuts that can be still made, and efficiencies to still be found, but none of it will add up to enough to avoid using Permanent Fund earnings, and thus reducing the dividend, or raising additional tax revenue.
There was bipartisan squealing when Walker cut the PFD appropriation by $666 million, but nobody on the right or the left side of the aisle ever put forward a plan to reduce the budget by that much.
Any tax increases, however, should go to the right places in the budget. Raising the fuel tax makes sense if it helps the Department of Transportation budget. The same goes for fish taxes.
To the tax credit hawks (and Walker): Pay the state’s bills. It doesn’t matter where you come down on the credit issue; this money is owed and it has to be paid sooner rather than later.
Democrats, and the Republicans who switched sides, are doing great damage to the state by demagoguing this issue as credits versus PFDs.
By all means, find a way to replace the credit program with something else that will still encourage development such as royalty modification (if they want to forgo future revenue to avoid the up-front development costs), but the state must get right with the companies it owes.
Democrats howl about “Big Oil” benefitting from the credits but in fact it’s “Small Oil” that is getting screwed and being forced to sell off credits to the majors to raise cash, and therefore reducing future state revenue.
The best thing the majority leadership has done is put Reps. Andy Josephson and Geran Tarr as co-chairs of the Resources Committee. They both seem to get that the state has become an unreliable partner to industry, and that whatever changes take place must first do no harm. Paying the bills would be a good place to start rebuilding the state’s reputation.
Tax and regulatory reform
On the federal side of things, we’ll see if noted budget guru House Speaker Paul Ryan has the stuff to finally fix our bloated and onerous tax code.
Corporate tax reform should be a must. Ours is the highest in the world and yet accounts for less than 10 percent of tax receipts.
That’s because corporations do everything they can to minimize their bills, often paying effective rates far less than 35 percent through deductions and exemptions, keeping their overseas profits offshore, or up and moving completely out of the U.S.
For those who complain about the influence of lobbying in D.C., you could probably wipe out half the lobbyists, lawyers and accounts there if you cut the corporate rate to 15 percent and removed all the incentives to game the system.
The same goes for regulatory reform. The bigger the government gets, the more big business gets to take advantage. Dodd-Frank is a prime example of how a regulatory reform kills small players and benefits the big hitters.
A smaller government is less influenced by big money.
The word is the Republicans have a plan in place to repeal it. Whether they have a plan to replace it is less certain.
One easy fix should be on the table, as should one fundamental one.
The easy fix is knocking down the state line barriers to buying coverage. Nobody understands this better than Alaska, where we’re left with just one provider in the individual market because our small population is almost impossible to manage as a risk pool.
Put us in a pool with 300 million other Americans and premiums would drop instantly.
The fundamental fix should be transferring to a system where all individuals own their policy and don’t depend on an employer to provide it.
Nobody loses their car insurance or life insurance or home insurance if they lose or leave a job. A system where you own your health policy and can shop for it in a national marketplace like every other insurance product would go a long way toward finally putting the “Affordable” in the Affordable Care Act.
If the legislators in Juneau and the new Congress and president could pull off this wish list it’s going to be Merry Christmas indeed in 2017.
Posted Friday, December 16, 2016 - 12:12 pm
President-elect Donald Trump reportedly offered defeated Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton five cents on the dollar for the fireworks victory display she canceled at the last moment, but he could save all his money and just watch liberals’ heads explode as he fills his cabinet.
There’s a saying that you can judge someone by the company they keep, which is true, but sometimes it as just as useful to see who are their adversaries.
Consider the latest statement from Greenpeace regarding the choice of Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., a 23-year veteran of the Navy SEALs, as his choice for Interior Secretary:
“Trump is on record calling climate change a hoax, and his proposed cabinet is filled with climate deniers, oil and gas industry shills, and hateful bigots. Climate-denying Montana congressman Ryan Zinke will fit right in. Zinke never worked for the people of Montana. He works for the fossil industry and coal companies, shilling for coal export terminals in disadvantaged communities in states he does not even represent.”
Gee, Greenpeace, how do you really feel?
It goes on:
“If climate change denial is going to be the official position of the Trump White House, then relentless resistance will be the official position of the American people.”
It’s cute that Greenpeace thinks it speaks for the American people. Cute like how little kids can’t pronounce “spaghetti,” with the only difference that kids eventually grow up (or don’t, if you look at the Play-Doh, coloring books, safe spaces and therapy dogs deployed on college campuses after Trump’s improbable win).
What a year it has been.
Here in Alaska it began with Gov. Bill Walker picking a fight with the producers over the Prudhoe Bay Plan of Development and is coming to a close with the CEO of one of those companies now poised to become the unlikeliest choice for Secretary of State by the unlikeliest president in U.S. history.
Rex Tillerson of ExxonMobil, who famously called Alaska “its own worst enemy” in September 2015, is about as unconventional a choice as Trump could make and although at first impression it was a head-scratcher on second thought there is likely no CEO with more diplomatic experience than Tillerson.
Who is better equipped to deal with the Russian strongmen like Vladimir Putin or the corrupt oil emirs of the Middle East than a man who actually has to do business with them?
An account of Tillerson in Forbes described him as the most “no nonsense” CEO the writer had interviewed in 17 years, as a man who still lists Eagle Scout on his resume and actually lives by the Boy Scout motto.
The left is howling about ExxonMobil’s Russian business interests after just voting for a candidate who whored herself out all over the world trading political favors and influence in exchange for Clinton Foundation donations that kept her, her husband and daughter living a luxurious lifestyle far beyond anything they’ve rightfully earned on merit.
He’s also a major step up from the feckless John F. Kerry, who has gotten rolled time and again like an Atlantic City tourist sitting at the poker table in the famous scene out of “Rounders.”
Put it this way: Nobody is going to look around the table at Tillerson and peg him for the sucker.
Rick Perry at Energy. Zinke at Interior. Rep. Scott Pruitt at EPA.
The media is aghast that Trump is nominating people who have blasted the agencies they are set to lead, which just goes to show they still don’t understand what’s going on any more than they did on Nov. 7.
The federal bureaucracy, which became a weapon under President Barack Obama as he failed to get anything through Congress, needs to be reined in and the people who are most familiar with its worst excesses are best positioned to do it.
The Energy Department doesn’t produce any energy. The EPA stands for Everything’s Prohibited Agency. The Education Department was formed in 1977 and we’re barely in the top 20 of math and science scores among global peers.
We can only hope that the polling that as much as 35 percent of the federal workforce would quit if Trump won was even half accurate. It would be a good start.
Posted Wednesday, September 07, 2016 - 12:40 pm
The home of the Salem witch trials has birthed another effort to hang the imagined heretics, and the State of Alaska is seeking to supply the judges with the rope.
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, along with 19 other attorneys general from 17 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands, have mounted an inquest against ExxonMobil seeking as much as four decades worth of internal documents and communications with independent groups in an effort to prove the company “knew” its fossil-fuel based products were going to destroy the planet and hid the evidence.
Under the guise of consumer protection backed by the threat of law enforcement, the thin veil on this masquerade was pierced almost immediately in April through uncovered emails obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request that showed climate change activists not only colluding with the AG offices from New York and Vermont about their strategy to bury ExxonMobil under a flurry of subpoenas but to also conceal their participation in the effort.
Unbelievably, Alaska’s brand new Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth is siding with those undertaking this blatant abuse of government power.
Lindemuth joined 16 other attorneys general — nearly all from the so-called “Green 20” group who launched this effort March 29 alongside carbon footprint hypocrite and former Vice President and Al Gore — in an amicus brief filed Aug. 17 in opposition to ExxonMobil’s complaint against Healey filed in federal court that seeks to quash her crusade against the company.
ExxonMobil took its case to federal court in North Texas, where it is headquartered, alleging that the Massachusetts AG is leading an interstate effort against it rooted in no law but rather in a purely political shakedown aimed at putting the company out of business and silencing those who diverge from the Green 20’s dogmas.
Because make no mistake about it. These AGs and their supporters who sought to conceal their involvement in this case want to put ExxonMobil into the same place it drills for oil and gas: the ground.
Also make no mistake about this: The same people who Lindemuth lined up with also want to put Alaska out of business.
Oh, Lindemuth has tried to defend her action as a “states’ rights” issue in a pathetic attempt to separate the amicus brief from the underlying action against ExxonMobil, but there is no differentiating the two.
While there is certainly a sound argument to be made that an entity subject to a state inquiry shouldn’t be able to go to federal court to halt the action, that is far from the case here.
The brief cites the undisputed authority of state attorneys general to investigate “fraudulent, misleading, or deceptive practices” within their jurisdictions, but there is no squaring that circle against the bogus charges being leveled against ExxonMobil.
Attorneys general do not have the authority to use the power of their offices to pursue political advocacy or to target people and organizations with differing perspectives.
Yet that is the practice that Lindemuth is attempting to secure through her joining this case as a friend of the Massachusetts AG’s defense.
The examples cited in the brief include 46 attorneys general who successfully litigated against the tobacco industry and the 50 who joined the investigation into fraudulent mortgage practices.
Were this such an obvious states’ rights issue, it is more than a little telling that the amicus brief was joined by so few attorneys general. The refusal of more to sign on is a glaring indication that the vast majority of states’ chief law enforcement officers see this effort for the transparent sham that it is.
Other cases cited included a Toyota recall, “four nationwide sham cancer charities,” and a telecommunications company based in New Jersey that was successfully sued by the State of Texas for fraudulent promises of service.
“These joint efforts have greatly enhanced the ability of state Attorneys General to uncover and halt widespread practices that harm individuals and businesses across the nation,” according to the amicus brief.
That’s all well and good, and rooted firmly in legal precedent.
It also has absolutely nothing to do with what the Green 20 are doing to ExxonMobil.
Considering that ExxonMobil is being targeted across multiple states with AGs and judges sympathetic to the Green 20 effort, it is laughable that Lindemuth would accuse the company of “forum shopping” in her letter to House Speaker Mike Chenault and House Judiciary Chair Gabrielle LeDoux.
If ExxonMobil is to be forced to defend itself in as many as 20 courthouses around the country it is only fair play for the company to seek any advantage it can, including taking these rogue attorneys into federal court.
Lindemuth told Chenault and LeDoux that “bad facts make bad law.”
Bad lawyers make bad law, too, and allowing these AGs to debase the law for their political aims will do far more damage than stopping this injustice in its tracks.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Wednesday, August 17, 2016 - 11:55 am
Much like Usain Bolt in the 100-meter dash, contests for the state Legislature in November figure to be races in name only.
What drama could be found took place on primary night and ended up decided by a tiny fraction of Alaskans even in the contested elections.
Democrats succeeded in toppling one of their top targets within their party — Rep. Bob Herron of Bethel — and Republicans did the same by taking out one of their own as George Rauscher defeated Rep. Jim Colver in the Mat-Su Valley.
The Democrats may go two-for-two in their efforts to knock off members of their party from Bush Alaska who caucus with the Republican-led Majority of the state House. Rep. Ben Nageak was leading by just nine votes against Dean Westlake with 87 percent of the vote counted as of this writing.
GOP interests failed to take out Rep. Paul Seaton of Homer, another prime target from their ranks, and saw influential members of their House delegation fail in their bids to elevate to the Senate with the losses of Reps. Lynn Gattis of Wasilla and Craig Johnson of Anchorage.
Seaton and Colver are members of the self-titled “Musk Ox” caucus that coalesced late in 2015 when the Republican leadership, frustrated with Democrats holding out votes to reach the magic 30 of 40 to draw from state savings in the Constitutional Budget Reserve, introduced a measure that would have emptied the Permanent Fund Earnings Reserve into the CBR in order to remove the requirement for a three-fourths vote to fund the budget.
The Musk Ox caucus continued to draw party ire in 2016 as they joined with Democrats on bills sharply curtailing the state’s oil and gas tax credit program, creating an embarrassing situation for House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, who couldn’t wrangle his majority and had to pull bills from the floor once it became apparent he didn’t have the votes.
Chenault, who served a record four terms as Speaker, is stepping down from that role although he is headed back to Juneau with no opposition either in the primary or general elections.
With only half of the body up for reelection, the Republican-dominated Senate shouldn’t look much different in 2017. That can’t be said for the House after the primary shakeups and the entry of a yet undetermined Speaker.
No matter what happens in Nageak’s race, there is a strong possibility for a bipartisan coalition of some kind that could end up controlled by Democrats, who already succeeded this year in determining votes by linking with the Musk Ox Republicans and a couple other stray members of the Majority.
The Democrat minority had 13 members last year including independent-in-name-only Dan Ortiz of Ketchikan, who will face a Republican challenger in the general election.
If Ortiz returns, Nageak loses, and other districts maintain the status quo, the Democrat caucus would number 15. The five remaining members of the Musk Ox group could create a caucus of 20, which still isn’t enough to control the House.
That would leave the Musk Ox Republicans with a choice of being a minority within their own party, or a minority among their supposed opposition party.
Seaton, who’s opposed the oil and gas tax credit program and proposed a state income tax, aligns well with the Democrats on their favorite means of closing the budget gap.
Attacking the state’s No. 1 industry and going after the state’s federal taxpayers are bad policies but make for good politics, and they also happen to jive with Gov. Bill Walker’s revenue strategies even though they’ll diverge sharply on reducing the PFD to completely close the deficit.
This is probably a good time to recall that when 10 Democrats and six Republicans formed the Bipartisan Senate Majority they passed the most bloated budgets in Alaska history from 2006-2012.
In the end, it’s difficult to tell if Alaskans even care who goes to Juneau.
The highest turnout in any district on primary night was 21 percent in Herron’s race vs. Zach Fansler, followed by 18 percent in Seaton’s race.
While it’s understandable that uncontested primaries had pathetic turnout with no statewide ballot initiatives to draw attention, seeing turnout of 15 percent to 17 percent in supposedly competitive elections in the Valley, Eagle River and South Anchorage sends a pretty clear message to legislators: We don’t give a flying you-know-what.
It’s bad enough that districts have been so gerrymandered as to render nearly every race uncompetitive. It’s worse when even in races that matter more than 8 in 10 Alaskans didn’t bother to register an opinion.
An old axiom is that we get the government we deserve, and Alaskans’ nonchalance in the face of serious times means we’re going to get it good and hard.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Wednesday, July 27, 2016 - 1:14 pm
Gov. Bill Walker likes to talk about his background in construction and how much he loves building things, but so far after a little more than 18 months in office his most successful project has been demolition.
The effort to undermine and eventually dismantle the Alaska LNG Project that began within days of Walker taking office in December 2014 culminated July 22 with the official announcement that his former law partner and Attorney General Craig Richards had been signed to a $275-an-hour contract barely a month after he resigned citing personal reasons.
With his man Keith Meyer heading up the Alaska Gasline Development Corp., a compliant board of directors and a contracted legal hit team in place, Walker is ready to go it alone on the project and to war with the producers.
It is important to recall what Walker said while campaigning for the office about the Alaska LNG Project that was orchestrated under former Gov. Sean Parnell.
“I’ll follow the process in place now, you bet I will,” Walker said on Oct. 28, 2014, at an Anchorage Dowtown Rotary Club debate. “But at the first sign of delay, or someone says ‘we’re going to slow this down,’ that’s when the state needs to have a governor who understands what to do and has the guts to say, ‘we’re going to finish this project as Alaskans.’”
Having created the circumstances himself that threaten to delay the project, Walker now has what he planned for all along: a state takeover of AK LNG and a break with Alaska’s North Slope partners.
The shadowy effort to execute this plan began with Walker’s hiring of Jim Whitaker, the former executive director of the Alaska Gasline Port Authority, as chief of staff and Richards as his AG.
The AGPA was Walker’s effort to build a pipeline from the Slope to Valdez to export LNG, but it failed because the group never had access to any gas, which, ironically, is where the state finds itself once again.
In early January 2015, Walker unceremoniously sacked two members of the Alaska Gasline Development Corp. board of directors on the eve of a regular meeting. One of the members didn’t find out he’d been dismissed from the board until he got off the airplane in Anchorage.
Walker then instructed his new commissioners and new board appointments at AGDC to not sign confidentiality agreements, setting up his first of many unnecessary fights with the producer partners.
A month later, Walker wrote an op-ed in which he put forth a plan to create a parallel pipeline effort to AK LNG as a backup in case one or more of the producers pulled out of the project despite no evidence such a decision was even under consideration.
In June 2015, Walker sent a letter to the producers asking them to study a 48-inch pipeline rather than the standard 42-inch pipeline, which added additional time to the preliminary engineering process and cost $20 million. The study and expense ended up a total waste of time and money as the project team maintained the design at 42 inches.
Around that same time, Richards hired Mark Cotham, a Houston-based attorney who’d done contract work for the Port Authority and penned an op-ed in the Juneau Empire in 2005 that advocated threatening producers’ leases as a means to spur development of the Slope gas resource.
Also that month, Richards issued a legal opinion concluding that a constitutional amendment was needed to set fiscal terms for the state’s share of the gas over long-term contracts.
As it turns out, this legal opinion requiring a general election vote in 2016 on a constitutional amendment to keep the project on schedule was the most clever of all Walker’s strategies to drive a wedge between the state and the Slope producers. But we’ll come back around to that.
That September, Walker called a special session of the Legislature to buy out TransCanada’s share in the project and make the state responsible for 25 percent of the costs. Not only did Walker put the buyout on the call, but he also resurrected the gas reserves tax that his chief of staff Whitaker authored in 2005 that was voted down in 2006 by a 2-1 margin.
Much like his idea for a parallel pipeline effort, the idea was panned roundly by legislators and the producers as counterproductive and Walker — after his usual, doe-eyed, “What’s the big deal?” routine — ended up not even introducing a bill.
He did, however, later extort written statements from BP and ConocoPhillips that they would sell gas to the state if they chose to exit the project.
The Legislature then, rather gullibly, voted to give Walker the keys to the state portion of the project.
With the state’s 25 percent share acquired, Walker kept moving with his plan, declared that “We’re TransCanada now” and fired another two AGDC board members including chair John Burns and the CEO Dan Fauske.
Of course he wasn’t even close to done.
Two events then took place in January. Richards had Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Mark Myers send out a letter to all the unit operators in the state demanding detailed gas marketing information. Disguised by the apparent equal treatment of all operators was the true target: the Prudhoe Bay Unit operated by BP and the source for three-quarters of the gas for the AK LNG Project.
Walker then sent a detailed demand letter to the producer partners laying out a heavy schedule of commercial and gas balancing agreements he said were necessary to be completed by April in order to meet a June deadline to place a constitutional amendment on the November general election ballot.
Here is where the decision to require a constitutional amendment was the master stroke of the plan.
In February, Myers resigned as commissioner at DNR about a week after his Deputy Commissioner Marty Rutherford told Journal reporter Elwood Brehmer that agreements would not be complete in time for a November vote.
Securing fiscal terms is a critical component to moving to final engineering and design, and not getting it on the ballot — again, a situation created by Walker and Richards — achieved its purpose by throwing up a roadblock to the producers moving forward and gave Walker the opening to portray the companies as not committed to the project.
On the same day Myers’ resignation was announced and a week after the Journal story was published, Walker called what can only be described as a hostage video of a press conference on Feb. 17 dragging up BP Alaska President Janet Weiss and ConocoPhillips Alaska President Joe Maruschak to announce that progress had stalled on AK LNG.
By now, oil prices had dropped to less than $30 per barrel compared to the $80 range when Walker took office and started tearing down the project he inherited.
With the bonus of collapsing prices along with the artificial timeline of a constitutional amendment working as intended to derail negotiations — there was no reason talks couldn’t have continued absent a need to seal all the deals in time for a November vote — Walker instructed his team to break off discussions with the producers.
At this moment, Walker was pursuing Keith Meyer to take over AGDC, and he made his splash immediately after taking the job in mid-June by asserting the state could lead the project with or without producer participation, draw investors from around the world by selling off pieces of the project and do all of this with almost no risk to the state treasury.
Part of selling this idea to legislators required creating the perception that the producer partners were “shelving” the project and had no desire to go forward.
It didn’t take long for Meyer to keep putting words in their mouths before ExxonMobil fired back with a strongly worded response that Meyer was issuing “inaccuracies” and mischaracterizations about the company’s belief in AK LNG.
So here we find ourselves with the state’s best hope for future petroleum revenue drenched in uncertainty and Walker’s legal team preparing to litigate with the producers over unreasonable demands for confidential information tied to a unit that supplies half of Alaska’s unrestricted general funds and is still the largest field in North America.
Walker’s lack of transparency and honesty over his true intentions for the AK LNG Project have been borne out by his actions. He’s paid lip service to the project and our partners all the while taking every step possible to crater the effort.
What Walker wants is clear. What makes him think he’ll be successful other than a circle of like-minded people rooting him on is impossible to decipher.
This kind of litigation will take years upon years. Years the state doesn’t have to waste. Years that will extend well beyond one or two four-year terms for Walker.
Walker’s attempt to divorce the state from its partners and lead the way on a project that will cost $45 billion or more is doomed to fail, and will cost Alaska dearly.
The governor likes to say he ran to do the job, not to keep the job, but it’s questionable how many voters would give him the job again if they knew his ulterior motive was to blow up AK LNG and start a legal war with the Slope producers.
Alaska has a few brick-and-mortar testaments around the state to the government’s inability to execute mega projects, or even simple ones.
Walker’s Quixotic quest to build the gasline himself gives him a chance to be the state’s first living boondoggle.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Wednesday, June 29, 2016 - 8:17 pm
The 29th session of the Alaska Legislature is starting to resemble the final scene of Reservoir Dogs when everyone ends up dead.
Gov. Bill Walker dropped the veto hammer on $1.3 billion worth of state spending on June 29 after the House Finance Committee refused to even allow a floor vote on using part of the Permanent Fund earnings to bridge a budget deficit of almost $4 billion.
Democrats and Republicans alike howled at the $666 million cut to the Permanent Fund Dividend appropriation — setting it at $1,000 this year versus a projected $2,000 — and the House Finance co-chairs Mark Neuman and Steve Thompson issued a whiny press release about Walker vetoing $430 million in oil tax credit payments that no one disputes are fully owed to companies who’ve already spent that money in the state.
What, exactly, did these people think was going to happen?
It is rich that Rep. Chris Tuck, leader of the House Democrats, would put out a statement that Walker is “playing politics” with the budget after his caucus has done nothing but play politics over oil tax credits this entire session.
To read their press release that contains Tuck’s statement, you’d think the oil tax credits are a discretionary expense. They aren’t, and the Democrats know it.
To celebrate the state sticking it to companies that invested in the state in good faith tells you all you need to know about how seriously they take their responsibility to create a stable financial climate for the companies they expect to pay for everything.
The state cannot get out of paying this money. Period. Full stop. We can pay it now or we can pay it later, but the amount isn’t going to change.
It’s a rash and destructive action by Walker as well, who is trotting out his new CEO of the Alaska Gasline Development Corp. to attempt to convince legislators the state can go into the private markets and finance a $45 billion LNG export project.
Really? How does the state convince investors that Alaska is a good place to put their money when for two years running the state has failed to make good on what it owes?
Some of that money is no doubt owed to Furie and to BlueCrest, who began producing gas and oil, respectively, within the last year. Surely the state isn’t collecting its royalty share of that production while it is reneging on paying tax credits. That would only be fair.
The guess here is that Furie and BlueCrest wouldn’t be operating for very long if they refused to make their royalty payments to the state, but it’s becoming crystal clear that Walker and his fellow Democrats think this is a one-way street.
Absent from Walker’s vetoes were the automatic “merit” pay raises for state employees. The absence becomes conspicuous when considering that the amount due for raises next fiscal year is larger than what Walker vetoed from K-12 funding and the University of Alaska System.
Neither the governor or the Legislature comes off well here, and like the end of Reservoir Dogs, it doesn’t matter who shot first or who killed Nice Guy Eddie.
Nobody walks out alive.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Wednesday, June 22, 2016 - 4:31 pm
Gov. Bill Walker has said repeatedly he’s willing to take the hit for reducing the Permanent Fund Dividend as a partial solution to the state’s budget deficit, and it looks like he’s going to get that chance.
The Alaska House of Representatives adjourned the latest special session on June 18 one day after the Finance Committee failed to advance Senate Bill 128 for a floor vote.
SB 128, which passed the Senate 14-5, would have ensured a $1,000 dividend for the next three years and contributed about $1.8 billion toward reducing the fiscal year 2017 deficit.
The version that failed in House Finance would have guaranteed a $1,500 dividend the next two years and $1,000 in the third, but even that sweetener wasn’t enough to get six votes.
So Walker has called the Legislature back once again for a fifth special session to begin July 11, but it is hard to see anything that will change attitudes toward a reduced PFD in the House between now and then.
Walker doesn’t have a lot of good options, but he’s not up for reelection until 2018. That gives him a chance to put his veto pen where his mouth is.
If the governor wished to leverage funding that is important to the House minority Democrats, he could begin by line-item vetoing budget items dear to their hearts such as increases in the Base Student Allocation, pay raises for state employees, the University of Alaska System and the like.
“We can’t afford x, y and z if we’re going to spend $1.4 billion on dividends every year,” Walker could say, and put it on them to explain why they would rather keep the PFD at an unsustainable level than support education or health care or their union constituency.
Walker has said, though, that he’s not interested in those kind of games and his lack of acuity for deal-making has already become self-evident during his first two years as governor.
A simpler fix, one that would allow the House to become the heroes of the dividend and allow Walker to make the fiscally responsible call, would be for the governor to veto the PFD appropriation down to a level that would pay his preferred amount of $1,000.
With the Senate on his side, the House could not override the veto on its own even if the members could muster 30 votes. Walker wouldn’t get his plan, but at least he’d be saving about $750 million the state is going to need sooner or later.
That would leave the House with a choice.
Pass the House Finance version with the $1,500 PFD for two years while incorporating the annual draw from the Earnings Reserve, or go home and campaign against a governor who isn’t up for election for cutting the PFD.
The problem with the latter choice is House members would have to explain why they didn’t vote to increase the PFD when they had a chance and let the mean ol’ governor take their hard-earned money instead.
If the House finally passes the modified SB 128, they would be able to at least campaign on standing up for the PFD, and achieving a smaller cut than the governor and the Senate proposed.
They’d still be free to rail against oil tax credits and megaprojects and all the other Democrat bogeymen lurking under your bed, which is all they really care about, but at least the state would have done something to get its fiscal house in order.
And in the end, cutting the PFD to $1,000 or $1,500 isn’t going to hurt the state economy very much, if at all. Consider that in 2015 the PFD appropriation of $1.2 billion represented 2.2 percent of the Gross State Product of $52.8 billion.
If the GSP is relatively similar this year, cutting the PFD by either $375 million or $750 million would represent 0.7 percent to 1.4 percent of the total state economy.
The only peaceful solution to this standoff is one that lets everyone save a little face. Allowing the House to vote to increase the PFD after a veto may give both sides what they want.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Wednesday, June 15, 2016 - 4:20 pm
President Barack Obama was unsure of the motivations of a man who yelled “Allahu akbar” as he opened fire on hundreds of defenseless people at an Orlando nightclub, but he was certain what the real problem is.
“This massacre is therefore a further reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school, or in a house of worship, or a movie theater, or in a nightclub,” he said. “And we have to decide if that’s the kind of country we want to be. And to actively do nothing is a decision as well.”
After presiding over, in succession, the worst terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11 from Fort Hood to the Boston Marathon to San Bernadino and now Orlando, Obama still believes the problem is guns and not the ideology of the people who pull the triggers.
Rather than blaming the radical Islamic terrorists who are wantonly slaughtering civilians on a daily basis around the globe, Obama’s statement effectively blames Americans — “if that’s the kind of country we want to be” — for allowing the sale of semi-automatic rifles.
Democrats were following Obama’s lead as bodies were still being identified at Pulse, pointing the finger at Republicans in Congress, Christian bakers, Donald Trump, the National Rifle Association, and just about anyone else other than the killer and the Islamic State that has flourished under Obama’s watch for the last four years.
Obama and Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton are happily pushing the idea that Trump is “doing the work” for the Islamic State with his inflammatory rhetoric about Muslim immigration.
It should take a new definition of chutzpah to blame Trump for the Islamic State when he was nowhere near the national stage in 2014 when Obama scoffed at the group as “the JV team” as it steamrolled across Iraq and Syria accumulating hundreds of millions of dollars in cash and American military equipment along the way.
At that time, Obama made the decision to “actively do nothing” until the horrific images of American citizens being beheaded by the Islamic State that August forced him to interrupt his golf game momentarily and at least appear to be doing something.
Three days after Orlando, the reliably left-wing New York Times came straight out and blamed “Republican politicians” for bigotry against minorities while claiming that the terrorist’s motivation “remains unclear.”
For Obama, his fellow Democrats and his praetorian guards in the media, it’s all too simple. Their enemies aren’t the enemies of America who have demonstrated they will kill citizens of the West of all political persuasions and colors.
Their enemies are their fellow Americans.
Whether it’s Sarah Palin, Trump or the Dukes of Hazzard, Democrats are quite willing to assign the fault for every gun crime or terrorist attack to someone other than the perpetrator, unless that fault can be traced to radical Islam.
It takes sick kind of mental gymnastics to witness a clear cut case of Islamic terrorism committed by a registered Democrat and turn around and blame Republicans.
As this column is being written a Connecticut senator is filibustering a budget bill demanding some kind of action on gun control.
Never mind that the FBI had every red flag it needed to deny a weapon to the Orlando terrorist, or that it was a clerical screwup that allowed the Charleston church killer to buy a .45 caliber handgun that isn’t even covered by the Democrats’ renewed calls for a ban on “assault weapons.”
The FBI had warnings from the Russian government about the Boston Marathon bombers. Immigration officials had warnings about the female half of the San Bernadino terrorists. The Fort Hood terrorist had the acronym for “Soldier of Allah” on his business card for goodness’ sake.
Yet for Democrats the Golden Calf of government is always the answer despite its repeated cases of butterfingers when it comes to carrying the ball in the fight against radical Islamic terrorism.
Looking inward at whether their strategy — to the extent one exists at all — to combat the Islamic State is working, or what federal law enforcement could do better to prevent terrorists from acquiring weapons in the first place would be too hard.
Blaming Republicans, on the other hand, takes no work at all no matter how high the body counts grow.
As we’ve seen after Orlando, it gets easier every time.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Wednesday, June 08, 2016 - 3:24 pm
Only in Alaska could a guaranteed $1,000 to every man, woman and child be considered a rip-off.
Only in Alaska could such an unrealistic attitude take hold fueled by widespread expectations that everything should be paid for by the federal government funded by U.S. taxpayers and the state government funded almost entirely by a single industry.
Those who have opined that the Permanent Fund Dividend has created an unhealthy sense of entitlement among Alaskans have been proven more right than wrong over the past couple days as the howls of “raids” on the Fund and claims of outright stealing from people’s back pockets emanate from internet cowboys’ (and girls’) keyboards and legislators from both parties.
For a state filled with people who endlessly espouse the refrain of “it’s our oil!” it’s a small wonder that in the 39 years of oil flowing through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System many have not bothered to think about what being an owner state means.
Owning the oil means owning the risk. If some Alaskans don’t want to ever feel the brunt of commodity price cycles then they should quit saying “it’s our oil!” and say what they really mean about the treasuries of the companies who produce it: “it’s our money!”
That’s what it looks like when the state constantly moves the tax levers to take in more at high prices and then take in more at low prices as if the oil companies are nothing more than a money printing press for the government.
The attitude of these Alaskans, reflected by a majority of the House and Gov. Bill Walker, are downright Venezuelan.
To put things in perspective, ExxonMobil finished 2015 with $3.7 billion in cash on hand. Even if the state could seize it all Hugo Chavez-style, it wouldn’t cover this year’s deficit. ConocoPhillips, the state’s largest oil producer, finished 2015 with $2.3 billion in cash on hand. That would cover a little more than half of next year’s deficit.
The state, meanwhile, has nearly $54 billion in the Permanent Fund and nearly another $8 billion in the Constitutional Budget Reserve. It will take in more than $1.1 billion this fiscal year from the oil industry despite the fact the producers spent a good chunk of this year losing money on every barrel.
Since the Swanson River discovery in 1957, the state has taken in nearly $116 billion in unrestricted petroleum income and has paid out more than $21 billion in dividends since 1982. But to hear the loudest voices tell it, we’re getting hosed by the oil companies.
You’ll never hear them talk about the 10 Democrats who controlled the Senate from 2006-12 and passed bloated budget after bloated budget and approved ever-escalating government union contracts that have raised the state payroll to some $1.4 billion.
Yes, Republicans controlled the House back then as they do now, but maybe someday the Democrats will be called to account for their spending habits as well, which included billions of dollars in tax credits under ACES that dwarfed PFD distributions in several years while production continued declining by 6 percent per year.
And what has the state done with that money? Alaska still has some of the worst education and health outcomes in the nation.Its state employees get generous raises every year for achieving nothing more than an “acceptable” review on their performance, if they’re evaluated at all.
The damage that will be done to the state from loss of oil production and loss of jobs will far outweigh the damage from distributing the historical average from the Permanent Fund as the Senate voted to do.
Media reports and Democrat talking points are that the PFD has been “halved” under this bill. Cutting it to $1,000 from a projected $2,000 is indeed cutting it by half.
It would also be accurate to say that the PFD has been capped for the next three years near the historic average of $1,089 per Alaskan. The average total distribution since 1982 has been $621 million compared to the $700 million that will be sent out this year.
To put it bluntly, the idea of spending $1.4 billion on PFD checks in the midst of a $4 billion deficit is insane, and those who advocate for the PFD being the No. 1 spending priority for the state are irresponsible.
The PFD was less than $1,000 in 2004, 2005, 2012 and 2013. It was less than $1,200 in 2003, 2006 and 2011.
In other words, the 2016 dividend will still be roughly equal to seven of the last 13 years even after being “cut in half.”
The sky didn’t fall then, and it’s not going to fall now from a PFD reduced from an all-time high to its historic average at a time of historic deficits. Anyone saying different is probably trying to get elected.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Wednesday, May 18, 2016 - 4:07 pm
I want my, I want my, I want my PFD.
With apologies to Dire Straits, the demagogues in the Democrat ranks are back in their comfort zone after dismantling oil and gas tax credits they once championed under ACES by winning over enough squishes among a Republican-led Majority that now exists in name only.
Alaska has a new House majority full of Garas and Guttenbergs that are apparently capable of coming up with an endless series of convoluted matrices of tax levers creeping ever upward but who can’t or won’t read the daily production report from the Department of Revenue.
Most of the public obviously doesn’t know it — and Gov. Bill Walker, his commissioners and his fellow Democrats sure aren’t going to point it out — but North Slope production increased this fiscal year for the first time since 2002.
With the fiscal year nearing its end June 30, production will be in the range of 520,000 barrels per day compared to 501,500 barrels per day in 2015.
Not only is that a 4 percent increase in the midst of a historic price collapse over the last 18 months, but it is only 2 percent less than the 531,100 barrels per day produced in fiscal year 2014 when the average price was $107 per barrel instead of the current $42.
In the last three years of ACES while the price averaged $105 per barrel, production declined by 11 percent from 600,000 barrels per day to 531,600 barrels per day.
In the first three years of Senate Bill 21, production has declined 2 percent while the price has averaged $74 in the same period.
To hear Walker and Sen. Bill Wielechowski tell it, though, we didn’t get anything out of Senate Bill 21 that passed in 2013.
One thing we didn’t get was the 5 percent annual decline that took place in six years of ACES.
Had the 5 percent ACES decline continued, production would have averaged 455,000 barrels per day this year instead of the current 520,000. That’s an additional 64,500 barrels per day, or 23.5 million barrels for the year that all generate a 12.5 percent to 16.6 percent royalty.
In calendar year 2015, the state collected $715.3 million in royalty payments (plus 5.1 million barrels of royalty oil) and for fiscal year 2016 will collect some $1.1 billion in petroleum income from an industry that is losing billions.
It is patently dishonest for Democrats and Walker (but I repeat myself) to continually assert that the state is losing money from oil tax credits when the state is taking in more than a billion dollars this fiscal year.
Wielechowski was at it on Twitter claiming everyone in Alaska is on the hook for $1,000 apiece to fund the oil tax credits already earned by companies and owed by the state. Never mind that nearly every penny in unrestricted general fund revenue, in savings accounts, and the Permanent Fund was generated by the North Slope producers who can never pay enough as far as the Democrats and the new Republican members of their cohort are concerned.
It’s funny, but Wielechowski did not have a problem in fiscal year 2012 when the credits under ACES totaled $716 million and the funds appropriated for the Permanent Fund Dividend were $564 million.
In fiscal year 2013, ACES credits totaled $918 million and the PFD appropriation was $576 million. In two years that’s a half-billion more in credits than PFD payments.
Where were the Democrats then? They were defending the credits as evidence ACES was working while ignoring the fact production declined by 7 percent or more in three of the previous four fiscal years.
Walker won’t stop his mantra that the dividend checks are going to go away without adopting his plan to tap the Permanent Fund Earnings Reserve, but that’s exactly what’s going to happen to the PFD if the Legislature elects to fund it according to his proposal with royalty income from a resource destined to decline more rapidly under their assault against the industry they demand pays the state’s way.
The message the House and Walker just delivered to the oil and gas industry is that the state is going to raise taxes now and then even further as soon as prices reach a level that would allow the companies to begin recouping the billions they’ve lost in the last two years and the billions they’ve invested since SB 21 passed.
No sane company would attempt to increase production or investment in such an environment.
That won’t matter to the anti-oil Democrats in the Legislature or the Governor’s Mansion. They’ll just keep singing the same tune.
That ain’t working; that’s the way you do it.
You get the money for nothing and the checks for free.
I want my, I want my, I want my PFD.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Wednesday, May 11, 2016 - 4:34 pm
Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, and former Democrat Sen. Hollis French once boasted about spending $540 million on them in a single fiscal year.
As a candidate, Gov. Bill Walker said he wanted to use them on the North Slope the way they’ve been used in Cook Inlet.
Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, touted them as a way for the major Slope producers to reduce their tax liability.
Revenue Commissioner Randall Hoffbeck called them investments in the future.
The Legislature’s consulting firm told them May 10 that eliminating them would be a “trade-off” between saving money and losing future private spending.
We’re talking, of course, about oil and gas tax credits offered by the state to incentivize development in one of the most expensive and challenging places on the planet to operate.
With the state in a $4.1 billion hole for the upcoming fiscal year beginning July 1, the Legislature has ground to a halt wrangling over the credit expenditures that are going to cost about $775 million no matter what changes are made going forward.
Republicans who fought through elections and a referendum defending their vision for tax policy and incentives have tucked tail and run over the issue as Democrats who supported these very incentives have been allowed to bank on the public’s amnesia over their past statements and ride on their tried-and-true playbook of demagoguing the oil companies.
In a 2010 op-ed, French and Gara wrote the following about their preferred tax policy known as ACES: “The credits reduce the tax a company owes, or, in the case of a company with no production, the credit can be sold. There is big money involved here: in fiscal year 2009 the oil industry made over $2 billion in capital investment in Alaska that resulted in $540 million of tax credits that lowered their overall tax burden.”
That’s right. Gara, who all but alleges oil executives are running around knocking bread out of Oliver Twist’s mouth, was bragging about the state laying out $540 million in credits, or about as much as would have been appropriated this year had Walker not vetoed $200 million in credit appropriations last June.
In 2011, Gara wrote another op-ed in which he stated that he proposed to “increase our tax credits for new exploration on the Slope, and for new processing facilities needed to put new oil in our pipeline.”
Under ACES, and before Senate Bill 21 repealed its overly generous 20 percent cap-ex credit, the state paid out $918 million in credits during fiscal year 2013 while French was a leader of the Bipartisan Senate Majority.
This is the law the Democrats fought to bring back in 2014 and the one they pine for to this day.
Here’s what Pat Forgey of the Juneau Empire reported in 2011 from Wielechowski’s defense of ACES: “The future of the North Slope is these smaller, wildcat companies, he said. Those incentives are available for any company, and the big producers such as ConocoPhillips Co., BP plc and ExxonMobil Corp. can lower their total tax rate by spending more on exploration, he said.”
You read that right. Wielechowski, who can’t finish a sentence without saying the word “giveaway” was advertising ACES credits as a way for the insidious big three producers to lower their tax obligations to the state.
Walker, who started this whole “conversation” with his veto last summer, said this at a Rotary Club debate on Oct. 28, 2014: “We need to level the playing field so smaller companies can come to Alaska. It’s very expensive to do business on the North Slope. We’re fortunate to have the large companies we do have, but we need to look for ways we can reduce the costs so it’s more economic for the smaller companies to come to Alaska, create jobs, create opportunity and drill for oil. We need more wells drilled outside the legacy fields to get more oil for the pipe.”
Holding diametrically opposed positions on a major policy issue within the space of a year or two is generally something the press finds newsworthy, but not many members of the media have bothered to hold Walker or Democrats accountable for their past statements — and votes — as they pound Republicans and the oil companies for supposedly trying to take away the Permanent Fund Dividend to line some fat cats’ pockets.
The credits under ACES were a way for Democrats to pretend they appreciate the mammoth contributions to the state economy from the oil and gas industry by claiming they supported small companies and incentivizing exploration with credits while bagging on the easy targets of the major multi-nationals who pay virtually every government salary in Alaska including the minority members of the Legislature and Walker’s anti-oil administration.
It’s no surprise politicians would cynically exploit the current fiscal state for their own gain, but it has been a useful exposure of the Democrats’ hypocrisy on the issue if anyone would bother to notice.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Wednesday, May 04, 2016 - 8:08 pm
Sometimes a dead horse really does need another beating.
On May 4, we received a fresh reminder of the federal government’s rank and callous hypocrisy regarding the emergency access road from King Cove to Cold Bay.
Earlier in the week, we were treated to more of the rudderless Legislature’s trademark blend of incompetence and dysfunction that goes together like a jar of Goober Grape.
Before getting to the Republican-led Legislature’s ongoing and pathetic attempts to extricate itself from the embarrassment of its Downtown Anchorage office building, up for the first whack is the U.S. Interior Department led by Sally Jewell and a new rule proposed by its Fish and Wildlife Service agency.
The rule released May 4 allows for the killing of bald and golden eagles by wind farms and nearly quadruples the annual limit for killing bald eagles first proposed in 2009; it also acknowledges that human-caused mortality of golden eagles may be unsustainable because studies since 2009 indicate the population may be in decline.
The new rule out for public comment would allow the killing of 4,200 bald eagles nationwide by wind farms compared to the limit of about 1,100 proposed in 2009.
The limit on golden eagle kills remains zero, but the Fish and Wildlife Service knows that windmills will still be causing mortality and therefore it has come up with “compensatory mitigation” workarounds so that companies may pay some sort of fee to a conservation bank to make up for killing golden eagles.
This is the same Fish and Wildlife Service that denied approval — and was upheld by Jewell — for 11 miles of one-lane road to complete a connection between King Cove and Cold Bay through the Izembek Wildlife Refuge based on hypothetical impacts on Trumpeter swans and Pacific black brant geese whose populations have no conservation concern.
FWS estimates there are about 143,000 bald eagles in the U.S., with half of those in Alaska, and it believes as much as 5 percent or more of local area populations can be killed annually without impacting the species as a whole.
Of the Pacific black brant geese, about 160,000 gather in Alaska annually and thanks to warmer temperatures as many as 50,000 stayed through winter in 2014 to continue feasting on abundant eelgrass in the refuge lagoons.
Of the Trumpeter swans, 13,000 of the 16,000 or so in the U.S. reside in Alaska with Lower 48 populations raised mostly by eggs transplanted from here.
Examples of the federal government’s arrogant abuse of discretion can be found on a daily basis, but few could be more egregious than Jewell’s heartless disregard for 1,000 mainly Alaska Natives living in King Cove while giving special treatment to a favored “green” industry such as wind power to kill thousands of eagles every year even when her own data show one of those species may be in decline.
The proposed road would do no such harm, as Alaskans have a long history of building infrastructure in sensitive areas. And in any case, putting a few birds at risk cannot begin to outweigh the risks to residents with medical emergencies and the members of the U.S. Coast Guard who are called upon to rescue them.
The press release from the FWS regarding the new eagle kill rule — which it describes in Orwellian fashion as “eagle management” — commits sins of omission by not including the number of eagles it will allow the wind industry to kill every year. You have to read into the 162-page proposed rule to find that information.
Even more galling, though, is FWS Director Dan Ashe’s comment in the release that, “Eagles hold a revered place in our nation’s history and culture, particularly that of Native Americans.”
Frankly, it is disgusting that Jewell, Ashe, et al, can pretend to be concerned about Native Americans’ feelings when it comes to eagles while coldly disregarding their feelings about access to emergency medical care.
No more proof is needed that the federal government’s care for its trust responsibilities to Alaska Natives goes no further than the extent to which it aligns with its own agenda.
LIO saga continues
On May 2, the Legislative Council voted 12-1 to attempt to buy another office building in Anchorage for $12.5 million currently owned by Wells Fargo and rescinded its offer made just a month ago to buy the current Legislative Information Office for $32.5 million.
In an ironic twist, Wells Fargo was one of the construction lenders along with Northrim on the Downtown LIO and prepared an appraisal of $44 million that was used to justify the now-voided lease being below market value at some $3.3 million per year, which means it might end up getting a double payout from this whole fiasco because those notes were eventually consolidated into a longterm loan by EverBank.
The Legislature isn’t going to get away from its mess in Downtown Anchorage by moving to Midtown.
The Legislature is going to get sued by the developers and their lender and based on Alaska Supreme Court precedent they’re going to have a good chance of recovering their costs at a minimum regardless of the fact the lease was voided by a Superior Court judge.
This bunch in Juneau couldn’t boil water without messing it up, but then again, they can probably get a lobbyist to do it for them.
A microcosm of Republican leadership’s cluelessness was Senate President Kevin Meyer’s statement about letting lobbyists for the LIO owners buy his dinner at the same time he’s getting $213 in per diem.
“We could pay for our own way,” he said to the Alaska Dispatch News. “I’m just trying to think how that would work.”
They sure know how to eat.
They just don’t know how to pay.
Posted Thursday, April 28, 2016 - 10:52 am
ConocoPhillips posted a loss of $1.47 billion in the first quarter of 2016, including a $2 million net loss from its Alaska operations.
The state’s largest oil producer increased its output year-over-year by 4.3 percent, from 163,000 barrels per day in the first quarter of 2015 compared to 170,000 in 2016.
It also spent $320 million in capital expenditures in Alaska, down from the $402 million spent in the same period of 2015, which reflects the work done throughout last year to bring the CD-5 site into production last October.
Although ConocoPhillips said Thursday that it is lowering its full-year capital expenditures outlook to $5.7 billion from $6.4 billion, the company announced last week it will spend $190 million to fully drill out CD-5 this year and next, and reach its production target of 16,000 barrels per day this year.
Last fall, ConocoPhillips announced it has sanctioned development of the adjoining Greater Mooses Tooth-1 project that has potential to produce 30,000 barrels per day.
Before reflecting net operating loss credits now the subject of so much debate in Juneau, ConocoPhillips’ unadjusted result in the state was a loss of $52 million. Yet even with the upward revision to a net loss of $2 million after taxes and credits, the company reported paying an effective tax rate of 96.4 percent in Alaska in the first quarter. It was the highest effective tax rate for any jurisdiction where ConocoPhillips operates, ahead of 90.8 percent in the Asia Pacific/Middle East and 65.3 percent in North Africa/Europe. The company's consolidated average rate was 34.5 percent.
Besides production taxes, oil companies in Alaska pay a 12.5 percent royalty plus property and corporate taxes.
In the same period of 2015, ConocoPhillips paid an effective tax rate in Alaska of 35.2 percent on pre-tax income of $225 million.
Revenue totaled $5.02 billion, down from $8 billion a year ago. ConocoPhillips reported its average realized price for crude oil was $31.43 per barrel in the first quarter compared to $48 in the same period of 2015.
The Alaska Department of Revenue estimates that lease expenses and transportation costs on each barrel of North Slope crude are about $46 per barrel.
The company’s loss was less than expected by Wall Street. Losses, adjusted for asset impairment costs and one-time costs, came to 95 cents per share. This was better than the loss of $1.07 per share that analysts surveyed by Zacks Investment Research expected. Shares were up slightly by 88 cents to $49 as of 10:20 a.m. Alaska time.
Posted Wednesday, April 20, 2016 - 4:16 pm
Gov. Bill Walker has a funny way of showing that he’s looking everywhere for solutions to the state’s current $4.1 billion deficit.
In addition to reducing the Permanent Fund Dividend by redirecting earnings into paying for state government, he’s proposed raising taxes on oil and gas, fishing, mining, tourism, alcohol, cigarettes, fuel, and personal income.
He made a big show in January of claims he’s instituted a hiring freeze and restricted employee travel, although he couldn’t provide any estimate of how much money it would save.
Meanwhile, his Department of Administration was negotiating with the labor unions that represent about 87 percent of the employees covered by collective bargaining arrangements.
About 11,000 of the 14,400 or so employees covered by the current negotiations are members of the Alaska Public Employees Association and the Alaska State Employees Association.
Coincidentally, both unions endorsed Walker for governor in 2014. Also coincidentally, its members are giving up next to nothing in the contracts being presented to the Legislature for approval.
All together, the Administration Department estimates the current contracts tentatively agreed to will save a whopping $6.5 million in the next fiscal year from a couple furlough days per employee and a minimal contribution to the health insurance from the current 0 percent to 5 percent.
To put that in perspective, $6.5 million in savings represents about 0.5 percent of total state payroll of about $1.2 billion.
Out of the total deficit, $6.5 million is 0.1 percent.
In the accounting world these amounts are known as rounding errors.
Out of the $457 million in higher taxes proposed by Walker — which amounts to more than 10 percent of the deficit — $6.5 million is 1.4 percent.
The furlough days, minimal as they are, generate even less when Administration estimates that about three-quarters of employees will cash in leave rather than take an unpaid day.
What remains are escalating and generous pay increases for “merit” and what is simply known as a “step” increase of 3.25 percent every two years. The definition of merit, under the state’s current contracts, is “acceptable or better.”
Under this definition, according to Administration Commissioner Sheldon Fisher, about 95 percent of employees qualify for the 3.5 percent “merit” raise for each of their first five years on the job.
To be fair, the Administration has removed the cost of living allowance increases, or COLA, from the current deals. A 2.5 percent COLA for the current fiscal year totaled about $30 million, which the Legislature offset with a corresponding cut to executive branch budgets.
That is difficult to count as “savings,” though, as elimination of the COLA will be more than offset by the near-automatic merit and step raises still in the contracts.
It is also worth noting that the Consumer Price Index has increased by just 0.5 percent and 1.6 percent in Anchorage in 2015 and 2014, respectively, thanks largely to the collapse in oil prices that is driving the deficit.
The most fantastic statement in the Department of Administration’s presentation to the House Finance Committee on March 14 was from the slide titled “Bargaining Priorities” that read “Current fiscal climate requires modest reductions.”
Modest? We know Juneau is off the road system but until now it wasn’t clear that it is actually on another planet.
As usual, though, the Republican-led majorities are botching their response.
Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, introduced House Bill 379 that would eliminate the merit and step increases until oil reaches $90 per barrel for a full fiscal year. It would also change the qualification for a merit increase from “acceptable” to “good.”
This is in direct opposition to a legal opinion from the Legislature’s own attorneys that declared unequivocally it is outside the body’s constitutional powers to engage in collective bargaining, which Johnson’s bill clearly does with its specific requirements for a labor contract.
The memo concludes that the Legislature holds the power of the purse, and can simply refuse to appropriate money to fund raises if it doesn’t approve of them.
All it should take is some firm statements from legislators to the Administration Department that they will not fund raises if they’re included in a contract.
Instead they are taking what appears to be an unconstitutional path to achieve what they already have the power to do by other means.
It’s no wonder the majorities find themselves in their current mess.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]