One year done: A look back at the Chugach acquisition of Municipal Light & Power

It’s hard to believe that it has been one year since the acquisition of Municipal Light & Power, or ML&P, by Chugach became final. On Oct. 30, 2020, the papers were officially signed, closing on an idea that had been discussed in Anchorage for decades.  Combining the infrastructure and workforces of two established and well-run electric utilities in Alaska’s largest city is no small feat. It took nearly two years of planning and preparation to get to what we internally called “Day 1” the first day we became a combined utility. We are proud to say the integration occurred with minimal impact on the community and the members we serve. Overnight, we went from serving roughly 69,000 members to serving nearly 93,000 members. All of this occurred, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, without an interruption in electric service.  When we joined the Municipality of Anchorage in the spring of 2018 asking voters to approve the sale of ML&P to Chugach, we made commitments. Among those were that rates would not go up as a result of the transaction; significant savings would be achieved by combining many functions; and it would be good for the community as sale proceeds would pay down municipal debt and help pay for city services.  While the integration continues, rates and costs are lower than they otherwise would have been without the acquisition. We are already seeing savings and know they will continue to materialize over the next several years as integration efforts are completed. We will have the final numbers on our first year in the first quarter of 2022, but we do know this: In January 2021, Chugach’s electric rates decreased for all customer classes. Payments of $712 million have gone to the MOA in the first year; of the sale proceeds, $229 million went into the Municipal Trust Fund, eligible to pay for city services. Savings of about $21 million have been realized from fuel, labor, and the elimination of inter-governmental charges. We are saving roughly $1 million a month in fuel alone. What we didn’t know when the ML&P acquisition was being finalized for regulatory approval, was that 2020 would bring a worldwide pandemic. Anchorage joined cities across the globe in closing businesses which caused an unprecedented economic downturn. For several months we did not collect delinquent accounts while the local and state emergency orders were in place, and we are working with members allowing them to catch up with their billing. To date, we have applied roughly $3.2 million from the federal CARES Act, Alaska Housing Finance Corp. assistance, and the state’s heating assistance program to eligible member accounts. Besides our members, the utility itself is also feeling the impacts of the pandemic.  Demand for power from commercial members is down about 8% compared to pre-pandemic times. That decline, coupled with inflation, labor costs, and energy efficiency measures by members has hit the bottom line. In response, we are managing costs and have asked the Regulatory Commission of Alaska to allow us to modify one of the agreements accepted when we bought ML&P by getting a reprieve on the treatment of expenses while we allow revenues to recover. As a member-owned, not-for-profit cooperative, we recognize the economic hardship many of our members are facing during the pandemic, and we don’t want to add to that hardship by asking for a rate increase.  In the meantime, as we continue to navigate the pandemic and other challenges together, we remain steadfast in our belief that Anchorage’s decision to combine two utilities remains the right one.  There’s still a lot of work to do as we continue to integrate systems and programs. What we know for certain is ratepayers are better off as a result of the acquisition with significant savings being realized and still more to be achieved in the years ahead.  The future is full of opportunities.  By powering Anchorage together, we can better meet future challenges and opportunities. Reducing carbon emissions, adapting to new technologies such as electric vehicles and battery storage, and continuing to improve efficiency will make our cooperative and the communities we serve a better place to live, work and play.  Most of all, we must meet our primary mission of providing safe, reliable, and affordable power to our member-owners.   Rachel Morse is the board chair and Lee Thibert is the CEO of Chugach Electric Association.  

GUEST COMMENTARY: Alaska’s clean energy leadership

In November 1969, Alaska made energy history by exporting the first cargo of American liquefied natural gas, shipping this new, cleaner form of energy to Asia and establishing ourselves as a low-carbon energy innovator. That first transit was the beginning of the longest-term export contract between the U.S. and Japan. Today a worldwide transition to climate-friendly energy is underway, and Alaska is well positioned to accelerate this global transformation. Because of hydrogen’s net-zero carbon benefits, it is a major component of a decarbonized energy future. Hydrogen is a clean-burning gas that contains more energy per unit of weight than fossil fuels, only emits water when burned, and can be made without releasing CO2. I am one of 10 senators that authored the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which passed the Senate last month and is expected to be before the House soon. The bill includes $8 billion to establish a handful of U.S. hydrogen hubs, and here in Alaska, we have an enviously complete checklist of all the components needed to become a global hydrogen leader. Alaska is rich with natural gas, whose primary component is methane, a key ingredient for producing hydrogen. Our natural gas is found in Cook Inlet, and in even larger quantities on the North Slope. The Alaska LNG Project is fully permitted and in an advanced planning stage, and adding hydrogen production to this project enhances and extends Alaska LNG’s financial rationale and climate benefits. Six of the top 10 cities with the largest carbon footprints are found in Asia, with Alaska positioned as the closest U.S. shipping point to these markets. This advantage was understood 50 years ago when we began exporting LNG, and it holds true today. Shorter shipping routes directly equate to lower shipping emissions, giving Alaska a major advantage over more distant markets. Hydrogen is a fundamental component of energy transition plans across Asia. Hydrogen is one of the building blocks of Japan’s energy roadmap. The Tokyo Games this summer featured the first hydrogen-powered Olympic Flame in Olympics history, a small but profound visible demonstration of Japan’s commitment to clean energy. South Korea is also rapidly moving toward a hydrogen future, with growing hydrogen targets in their overall energy supply. Alaska already has well-established trade relationships with Asian nations. Supplying them with Alaska hydrogen will give our economy and our collective climate a major boost. The bipartisan infrastructure bill also includes $3.5 billion to establish hubs for carbon capture, utilization, and storage — known as CCUS — in “regions of the United States with high levels of coal, oil, or natural gas resources.” Alaska is the perfect proving ground for such a project. To achieve the climate benefits of converting natural gas to hydrogen, carbon must be captured during the production process and safely stored. Carbon is typically stored in naturally occurring underground reservoirs, and geologists have determined that Cook Inlet is among the best sites in the U.S for potential carbon sequestration. In addition to Cook Inlet’s natural gas, Nikiski will be home to the Alaska LNG terminal and already has infrastructure available that can be the basis of launching hydrogen production, storage, and export. Alaska is ahead of the game. We have the ability to integrate new, cutting edge energy technologies into existing infrastructure, which will decrease startup costs, and make the long-term economics of hydrogen energy more affordable. No one knows how to produce energy in a cleaner, safer, and more profitable manner than we do here in Alaska. As the world adds new clean fuels like hydrogen to supplement or replace existing energy supply, Alaska has the resources to continue to be an energy leader for the foreseeable future. As our clean energy infrastructure priorities take shape and get funded in Washington, I will continue to ensure Alaska’s assets are a leading component of the national solution. Lisa Murkowski is the senior U.S. senator from Alaska.

BROWN’S CLOSE: Backpacking, and Other Burdens Part 2

Previously, on “Brown’s Close…” The pain in my ankle was sharp. The only sounds I could make were a shriek, and a pitiful, “Oh no.” This was it. My worst fear. I’d have to be taken off the trail by helicopter like the poor woman we were previously warned about. My name would go down in trail history as an inexperienced nuisance. My friend, who had been consistently moving at a quick pace and was far ahead, heard me fall and doubled back with the lightning speed of a jaguar.  Reaching my side –  “Drop the pack,” she ordered. I struggled out of the large backpack, clutching my ankle. I rolled around on the ground, taking the kind of deep breaths women are always practicing when they give birth on television. “I heard a crack,” I mumbled. My friend didn’t say anything, and instead turned grey. I rolled around some more, and then tentatively rolled my ankle. Then, with the horrific image of having to lie on the ground for hours waiting for a helicopter to find me and take me home, I rolled onto my knees, and stood up. Confirming I could walk, I told myself that my ankle wasn’t broken.  My friend helped me on with my pack, and she bounded on, with me trudging behind her. With her periodically running ahead and then doubling back, she glowingly confirmed we were not as far from Eagle River as she’d initially expected. My heart leapt for joy; Eagle River was the overnight camping site. We would cross the river first thing in the morning. Eagle River, like many of Alaska’s natural elements, is mighty. The current is quick, the water high, and hikers get caught and drown. Until my ankle injury, which was now my chief concern, fjording the river had been the part of the trip about which I had been quietly fretting.  Reaching the riverbank, I plopped down, took off my left boot, and examined my ankle. It was significantly swollen; all prior definition was gone, and the vascularity had disappeared from my foot. The ankle was unstable. My friend was marching up and down the river, examining the conditions. There was a couple across the way on the other side, happily changing clothes in full view. They had clearly just crossed through the glacial melt, and were putting on dry clothes as advised to prevent hypothermia. “Uh, Sarah?” she spoke softly, as if approaching someone on her deathbed. “I think we should cross.” “Wait, what now?” I squawked, alarmed.  I was supposed to have eight hours to prepare myself for this feat. “Well, yeah. There are people around. I’d rather do it then.” My safety track record on this trip so far was not great; tripping and drowning were definitely possible. If I did that when people were watching, at least they could report where to look for my body. “Well, let me change my shoes and see how my ankle feels.” We’d each brought separate water shoes solely for the purpose of crossing Eagle River. I pulled the sandals gingerly over my ankle. It was so swollen the straps almost didn’t make it around the blobby grapefruit that, an hour ago, had been a working joint. I didn’t have any way of treating the injury other than making it worse by walking on it for another fourteen miles. Oddly enough, submerging it in icy water might be the best thing at the moment. “Let’s do it.” Prior to the trip, I watched a safety video on crossing Eagle River. According to the video, we were supposed to line up with everyone in our group, holding the hips of the hiker in front of us, and move sideways in a line facing the current. The theory was each person would help stabilize the hiker in front of him. I hobbled over to the water’s edge, and my friend graciously agreed to be the leader, taking the brunt of the current. My friend leaned into her poles, and I leaned into her. The water, which came up to mid-thigh, was icy and, as advertised, fast. The rocks under foot were smooth and slippery, and would have been difficult to negotiate with two good ankles. My friend took a shuffling side step to the left, and I followed. We took another, and I felt myself lurch forward. “Wait, stop you’re going too fast, you're going too fast!” I shrieked hysterically, all in one breath. “You okay you okay you okay?”  “I’m okay I’m okay I’m okay,” I answered in our new call and response. We took another step to the left. And another. And another. I was torn between skipping as quickly as we could to the shore, and with keeping my ankle from getting stuck between one of the rolling, slippery rocks. We lurched to the left again, and I compulsively squeezed her hips in a death grip.  “You’re going too fast, you're going too fast!” Then, realizing we really were quite close to the shore by then --   “I’m okay I’m okay I’m okay,” I shrieked before she could ascertain if I was ready to move forward. In a weird sideways charge, we galloped the last 10 feet, and onto the rocky beach. I collapsed, tears streaming down my face from pain, and total relief. “I’m so glad that’s over,” I kept muttering. “You know Sarah? Every time you told me I was going too fast? I was just, like, moving.” I laid down on my back, lifting my ankle into the air, moaning, muttering, and periodically asking my friend if she needed help erecting the tent. She assured me she did not, and then came to sit next to me on the rocky beach. “I’m so glad that’s over and we don’t have to do that tomorrow,” I muttered one last time with finality. In advance of this trip, I had excitedly, and optimistically, purchased a “backpacking sleeping bag” on Amazon, rated down to 47 degrees Fahrenheit. All day trudging through the snow covered mountains, I’d worried about whether the bag would be warm enough.  While I did not freeze to death, I did roll around all night shivering, and wondering what shape my ankle would be in by morning. At 6, I crawled out of my friend’s tent shivering, and examined my ankle. It still resembled a grapefruit, but did not hurt as much as I had feared. Chalking it up to adrenaline, I hoped this protective panic would last until I could collapse at home later that night. My friend scuttled out of the tent soon after me, and we made breakfast. Of my remaining freeze dried meals, I determined chili mac was the most breakfast-like, and I stirred the contents around in the boiling water, marveling at the sheer volumes of sodium inherent therein. We then packed up, and hit the trail. Everything hurt. My ankle, my shoulders, my back, my feet, my new blisters. The residual pain of Day 1 exacerbated the pain of Day 2.  I spent the better part of the first two hours hobbling along, holding my breath. We were wading through creepy tall grass again, and a bear could stick his face out in front of me without warning. Eventually we made our way into woods which, while still eerie, offered more visibility. Bursting over a bridge and crossing Eagle River from a different vantage point, two young men came bounding towards us, hailing us down.  My friend grabbed her bear spray. I, on the other hand, was glad to see them. Maybe they’d give my old bones a lift home after they murdered me. They announced they were taking surveys for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. I leaned heavily on my poles, relieved that we had stopped walking. “How did you hear about this trail?” I gestured mutely to my friend. “How is the difficulty level?” “Easy!” she rattled off. I, on the edge of collapse –  “Really hard,” I muttered, in a voice barely louder than a whisper. “A lot of beginners like it for the variety. You’re exposed to so many different types of terrain. Snow patches, river crossings, eh?” “I fell down the hill in the snow yesterday,” I answered flatly. “Do one of you have an ace bandage?” One of the surveyors obligingly looked through his pack, and then confirmed not only did he not have an ace bandage, they had stopped carrying first aid kits. “Last question,” the other resolutely continued. “What did you do with human waste?” My friend and I glanced at each other for a moment. “Uh, I haven’t had that problem.” “Me neither,” she answered coyly. “Are you familiar with the concept of, ‘Leave No Trace?’” he stubbornly continued with his intrusive line of questioning. My friend, experienced backpacker that she was, assured him she knew how to bury her poop in the woods, sans tutorial, thank you. While this little vignette broke up the monotony of the hike, we were just postponing the inevitable pain to come. We shuffled forward. “The fun part about the last day is you can plan where you are going to eat a celebratory dinner!” my friend sang out. “I always like to think about where I am going to go for dinner in Eagle River when we finish…” She glanced at her watch as she trailed off. Then – “Though we would really need to pick up the pace if we are going to have time to go to a restaurant before driving back to Girdwood.” I grunted in response and continued to shuffle. “Let’s play a trail game!” my friend called in desperation. “Oh gosh, yes please.”  Anything to distract me from my total abject misery. The game was simple. She decided on a category (“Items I will serve in the new restaurant I am opening”). We then traded naming items in that category, in alphabetical order, while reciting all previously named items. If one player failed to name a new item, or failed to remember an old item, that player lost. The restaurant to be opened by my friend quickly turned into a boozy bakery, serving solely sugary cocktails and decadent desserts. Menu items included Dutch Apple Pie, Eclairs, Fudge, Mango Margaritas, Sorbet, and Wine.  Exhausting the alphabet, we switched to Items We Can’t Forget for Our Vacation (“Jungle Safari Hats,” “X-ray Goggles,” and “Yellow Rubber Ducky Raincoats”). We were happily listing all of the qualities of Our Dream Guys (“Bulging Biceps,” “Cute Calves,” “Helps Me When Needed,” and, above all, “Quiet”) when I threw out my arm and grabbed her shoulder. “Hang on, there’s something moving up there.” Our current trail was meandering along the side of a steep cliff that descended into the river. Forrest covered our right side. We squinted through the forest. The trail bent to the right, and I couldn’t tell if the movement was coming from a fellow hiker, or something more sinister. Then its profile emerged from behind a tree one hundred feet in front of us. The most horrible profile imaginable. “Bear! Bear! Bear!” I whispered hysterically.  We each seized our bear spray, and retreated down the hill as far as we could before we hit the cliff. The bear sensed he had company, and crashed up the hill ahead of us. We watched the trees up the hill, frozen. The bear sashayed up over our heads, and then emerged from the trees, looking at us curiously. He started walking towards us. Hoisting our weapons high, we sidestepped to the left, as the bear continued his approach. Then, distracted for a moment, he looked off to his left, and we scrambled on through the trees, breaking into a run at the first opportunity. “Is he following us, is he following us, is he following us?” “No,” she said, putting the safety clip back on the cannister, and holstering her spray. “I think we are safe.” Knees and ankle wobbling, I put my weapon away, and the two of us abandoned the remaining qualities of our dream guys, and began shouting frantically. “Hey bear! Hey bear! Heeeeeeyyyyyy beeeeeaaaaaarrrrrr!” We were now within the Eagle River Nature Center, and all of my attention was single mindedly focused on getting out of here. Ankle sore and rickety, I began using my walking poles as crutches. More and more people were on the trail, and my friend cheerily reminded me that the more children we saw, the closer to the end we were; small people can’t hike too far.   By the time I saw toddlers, I escalated my walking pole crutch speed to as close to a run I could manage. A group of young mothers and babies were up ahead, and spotted our backpacks. “Where did you camp?” one mother asked curiously.  My friend stopped to chat.  I blew past them.  No time for moms. I was rocketing forwards by now, drawing heart from the sight of power lines in the distance. My friend, breathless, hurried to catch me. “Lesson learned, Sarah does not brake for moms! Admittedly, they were very chatty.” We burst out of the forest and into the parking lot. I began to cry quietly with relief, as my pace slowed to a shuffle, and I hobbled pitifully back to her car. The author, at left, managed a smile at the end of the hike from Girdwood to Eagle River. It was four in the afternoon, and too late for dinner in a restaurant before driving back to Girdwood to get my car. Instead, we went to Arby’s and wolfed down large sandwiches, curly fries, and chocolate milkshakes. We then trekked back to Girdwood, back to Anchorage and back to home. Upon arrival, I got into bed, and did not get out for two days. Sarah Brown periodically whimpers. Whisper soothingly to her on Twitter @BrownsClose1, or email her at [email protected] “Close” is a British term for alley or cul-de-sac. For more of Sarah’s musings, visit Browns-Close.com.

OPINION: Legislature puts the ‘end’ in dividend

Until the 11th hour of the third special session of the year, Alaskans were not going to get a PFD this fall. And they still aren’t. Instead, they’ll be getting a GFSBRP. That would be the General Fund-Statutory Budget Reserve Payment. After ignoring the statutory formula for paying the Permanent Fund Dividend out of, you know, the Permanent Fund, since 2017, the final legislative compromise in 2021 abandoned both the formula that remains on the books and the namesake source of the money. Instead, majorities in both the House and Senate cobbled together $400.5 million from the General Fund and $330 million from the Statutory Budget Reserve for an estimated GFSBRP of about $1,100 per Alaskan. An argument that it is at least partially a PFD (or a PPFD) could be made because some $3 billion from the Permanent Fund was transferred into the General Fund under the percent of market value, or POMV, draw. But it is doubtful whether many legislators if any, even among this bunch, are so lacking in shame that they would line up to make that case. A trope of pieces such as this is to call on the “dictionary definition” of some term in order to make a point, so it is with reluctance to note that a “dividend” according to Investopedia is a “distribution of corporate profits to eligible shareholders.” In this reading, not only have the legislative majorities bastardized the “PF” in PFD, but they have also twisted the “D” to something other than its actual meaning. A payment from savings rather than profits is not a true dividend, and a payment that drains that savings account to nearly zero — while another account holds more than $82 billion including a greater than 20 percent profit in the past year — is the height of malfeasance from our elected officials who fancy themselves as state’s board of directors. While the legislative majorities routinely disregard the laws they find inconvenient — the statutory PFD formula, the voter-backed 90-day session limit, oil tax credit payments or per diem restrictions that kick in without a budget — they treat the POMV draw passed just a couple years as if it was carried down Mount Roberts by Moses himself carved on stone tablets. To be fair, however, it isn’t that they respect the POMV law any more than any other. They just don’t trust themselves to be responsible with that much money, which ironically is how some of them view the idea of paying Alaskans the amount called for under the statutory formula after a decade-long bull run in the equities markets. Based on what previous Legislatures did with windfall amounts of cash, that is probably a safe assumption, but not one that speaks well of those who are good at running for office but not actually good at governing. The gridlock returns for another special session called for Oct. 1 that will span the eventual distribution of the GFSBRP, to be followed not long after by the regular session in January falling in a general election year. Now that the majorities drained one savings account and lack the numbers to access another (the Constitutional Budget Reserve requires three-quarters to agree), how they will piece together the magical $1,000+ amount they’ve settled on as apparently enough to keep the pitchforks at bay is anyone’s guess. Gov. Mike Dunleavy has compromised from his campaign pledge to pay out the PFD according to the statutory formula; his political opponents may make hay out of criticizing his 50-50 plan but a wiser course would be silence when their alternative is ending the PFD entirely. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

Retention efforts as important as recruiting quality employees

For leaders in business, it is no surprise that having the right person doing the right job is crucial for business performance and maintaining a competitive edge. The right hire can enhance management practices or adversely complicate them with an employee who may not be the right fit. Even with today’s perceived talent shortage, employers seem to be taking caution with new hires, often leaning on relationships and instinct. However, Gallup meta-analysis results reveal that when companies select the top 20 percent of candidates based on a scientific Gallup assessment, they frequently realize: 41 percent less absenteeism, 70 percent fewer safety incidents, 59 percent less turnover, 10 percent higher customer metrics, 17 percent higher productivity and 21 percent higher profitability. With the rapid changes in workforce demographics, organizations are experiencing a high rate of turnover and lower retention. According to the Anchorage Economic Development Corp., the recruitment of talent is the number one concern of employers. Due to a rapidly developing business environment and advancing technology, outsourcing recruitment and hiring is becoming commonplace. Today only 28 percent of business leaders are considering internal promotions and lateral movement. Outside hiring has been adopted as a standard practice due to less internal development and the immediate needs to fill positions. Business leaders are doing their best to tread waters to fill vacant positions as soon as possible and maintain the required productivity by having current staff cover vacancies; often to the detriment of morale and engagement. With such efforts, the hiring process becomes more complicated and exponentially more expensive without organizations realizing the real cost of recruitment. Having employees do more with less leads to lowered production, efficiency and customer service, which results in reduced revenues not recorded as an actual recruitment expense. Bigger picture, this leads to a tightening of the labor market while inhibiting fresh talent at the entry level positions. When firms limit internal potential for advancing lower-level entry positions, the organization is not opening doors for new talent and in some cases stagnates the succession planning process (HBR, 2019). When there is not a future vision for an employee’s professional growth and development, organizations see that the most valuable employees are hired away and the ones remaining become significantly disengaged. Directly following the initial advertisement and the extension of job interviews, the more influential recruitment efforts extend into orientation and onboarding. The development and onboarding of new hires demands an investment from leadership and the organization to retain new talent. Consistency and purpose are key elements needed to retain the highest producing and qualified candidates. Given the challenges in recruiting talent, retention should be the focus, and yes, retention begins with onboarding. According to Gallup, only 12 percent of employees strongly agree that their organization does a great job onboarding new employees. This failure gets in the way of the formation of an emotional bond between the new hire and the company, a connection that can make or break retention. From an employee perspective, onboarding involves a series of firsts: first day on the job, first time meeting a manager and coworkers, first work projects and tasks, and first opportunities to share their talents with the organization. Understanding employees’ talents and strengths is key to establishing opportunities for great firsts. Gallup continues with recommending that the transition from candidate to employee should feel like a natural handoff that continues the momentum and fuels the excitement for the new job. A thoughtful onboarding program will connect talent to employer and result in loyalty. Katie Lauwers is a senior consultant with Bradison Management Group and a certified Clifton Strengths Coach.

OPINION: Another failing grade for Alaska schools

In its release of the latest statewide performance assessments for Alaska students, the state Department of Education and Early Development cautioned against comparing the results to prior years but I did it anyway. The spring 2021 Performance Evaluation for Alaska’s Schools, also known as PEAKS, were the first administered since 2019 as they were waived amid the COVID-19 suspension of in-person instruction last year. You have to click through the link in the press release to see the results that are once again a dismal indictment of how the state’s public schools continue to post unacceptable outcomes in the core areas of English Language Arts and Mathematics. The state DEED advised not to compare the 2021 results to prior years based on the drastic decline in participation rate — from about 90 percent in 2019 to just 64 percent in 2021 — but there is virtually no difference in proficiency in spite of fewer students taking the tests. In 2019, all students in grades 3 through 9 rated as proficient in English arts numbered 39.2 percent; in 2021 the same cohort tallied 39.5 percent. In math, just 35.7 percent of third- to ninth-graders scored proficient in 2019 compared to 32.4 percent in 2021. There is much to be disturbed about simply looking at the topline statewide results, but one alarming trend stands out: math proficiency in particular declines the longer students are in the state’s public schools. Third-graders posted nearly 38 percent proficiency in math and that number steadily declines at each grade level until bottoming out at 26 percent proficient for eighth-graders (ninth-graders came in at 30.7 percent proficient). A similar trend after reaching middle school appears in the English arts. Student performance improved from 36 percent proficient in third grade to nearly 47 percent by sixth grade. However, by ninth grade proficiency in English arts sinks back to the same 36 percent as the third graders. Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a longtime educator and administrator in rural Alaska, made education reform a central part of his campaign but no meaningful measures have been enacted or gained any traction as the all-consuming fights over the budget deficit, vetoes and the Permanent Fund dividend have become the black hole of state politics that swallows up every other pressing issue. For all the recent obsessing over “equity” (of outcomes) versus “equality” (of opportunities), the single greatest effort that could be made to achieve both is in education. Alongside a stable, healthy home life, no factor is a greater predictor of future success than a quality education. Disengaged parents who treat school as a daycare center without engaging in their children’s progress or lack thereof are just as much to blame as the teachers unions which resist any attempts at accountability for outcomes such as below proficient students in math outnumbering their peers by 2-to-1 year after year. With that said, parents also deserve the freedom and the resources to send their children to the schools where they feel the best education is being delivered. Long since has passed the time when the State of Alaska must hit a reset on its educational priorities to a relentless focus on the basics that is sustained through graduation. Math, reading and writing are not just some co-equal subjects to social justice curriculum and classroom time should reflect that at a minimum until such time as the results afford us the luxury of engaging in university-level hippie-dippy theorizing. Educating students on respecting someone’s pronouns does no good if they don’t even know what a pronoun is. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

COMMENTARY: Tongass holds wealth of resources in renewables, mineral exploration

Southeast Alaska is at a unique crossroads in its management of the Tongass National Forest. How will reimposition of the 2001 Roadless Rule impact development of natural resources like geothermal, hydroelectric and mineral resources? As stewards of these public lands, we need deliberative and balanced Forest Service consideration of the best use of and access to these resources to protect and sustain Southeast communities, and their economic future. The Forest Service needs to carefully consider the serious ramifications that reimposition of the Roadless Rule will have on our nation’s efforts to increase local, high paying jobs and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Currently, mines operating within the Tongass National Forest occupy a footprint of roughly 320 acres. Even if there were a dozen more mines their size scattered throughout the Tongass, they would only occupy 3,840 acres in the 16.9-million-acre forest. Yet the future potential for the Tongass to help power America is enormous. For example, the Bokan Mountain Project is a rare earth prospect that would produce the minerals needed for batteries to power electric cars. The final environmental impact statement, or FEIS, for the 2008 Tongass Land and Resource Management Plan pointed out that the U.S. Bureau of Mines had identified 148 locatable mineral deposits in the Tongass. Of these, 52 were ranked as having the highest mineral potential. Seven were ranked as having the next highest potential and at least one “critical” and “strategic” mineral. In addition to the 148 Identified Mineral Deposits, the 2008 FEIS described 930 “Undiscovered Mineral Resource” tracts. However, no mine can be developed unless it: 1) meets the strict environmental requirements of 36 C.F.R. Part 228 as analyzed under the National Environmental Policy Act process and 2) survives the inevitable litigation testing whether the analysis complies with NEPA. Mines making it through this process are not going to end hunting, fishing, and tourism on the Tongass, yet they will provide opportunities and jobs for citizens. The benefits of mining are evidenced by the Greens Creek and Kensington Mines which, which combined provide more than 800 jobs with average annual wages over $115,000. Mining provides high-paying, year-round employment on the Tongass. The potential for many more high-paying mining jobs on the Tongass is enormous. A 1991 United States Geologic Survey study estimated a value for discovered minerals of $37.1 billion, and a value for undiscovered minerals of $28.3 billion. Obviously, the escalation in metals prices that has taken place since has dramatically increased these numbers. So, clearly the Forest Service should be concerned about how reimposition of the Roadless Rule would affect mining. The Response to Comments in the 2001 Roadless Rule interpret Section 294.14(d) in a way that creates uncertainty about the construction of roads to access future hydropower and support facilities in Inventoried Roadless Areas. Some respondents were concerned about the impact of the rule on special uses and requested clarification regarding the ability to construct or maintain roads in inventoried roadless areas to access electric power lines or telephone lines, pipelines, hydropower facilities, and reservoirs. The response was the proposed rule stated that the rule would not suspend or modify any existing permit, contract, or other legal instrument authorizing the use and occupancy of the National Forest System lands. Existing authorized uses would be allowed to maintain and operate within the parameters of their current authorization, including any provisions regarding access. The 2020 FEIS identified 19 geothermal resources in Southeast Alaska. “Because of the potentially significant environmental impacts that road construction could cause to inventoried roadless areas” the Final 2001 Roadless Rule denies access to new leases for geothermal resources (along with other minerals subject to the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920). The Final Rule contained no discussion of the impact of the loss of geothermal energy to rural Southeast Alaska communities. For these reasons the Forest Service (and public) should work toward a management result that acknowledges the opportunities provided by the vast wealth of multiple resources that surround us. Work to solve real needs and access to critical resources, and not be swayed by the red herring of “large-scale old growth” clear-cutting which has not occurred for decades and still would not even with a full exemption. Access for mineral exploration and renewable energy is essential to developing and maintaining vibrant communities, strong economies, and a healthy environment in Southeast Alaska. Robert Venables is the executive director for Southeast Conference, the Economic Development District for Southeast Alaska. Southeast Conference plans for the success for each economic sector in Southeast Alaska. Bill Jeffress is a Mining Consultant and president of the Alaska Miners Association, a professional membership organization representing miners from across Alaska.

COMMENTARY: Biden leaves behind more than Americans, weapons in Afghanistan

As Americans watched in horror at the tragic scene of U.S. Marines losing their lives in Kabul, Afghanistan last week, emotions ran the gamut from anger to frustration and sadness. A two-decade effort to bring stability to Afghanistan ended in failure and humiliation. Lives were lost. Chaos reigned at the airport. Hopeless efforts were made by many who wanted to leave the country, but couldn’t. Twenty years after terrorists used Afghanistan to launch the attacks on September 11, the Taliban flag once again flew over Kabul. America’s longest war ended in defeat. As the last American troops left Kabul this week, we left behind not only our fellow citizens, but also so many people who put their lives on the line to help us. So, too, remained military hardware, with its technology sure to be reverse-engineered by the Taliban and other countries eager to learn how to replicate its might. Simply put, the blunders of the current administration in its haste to end our involvement in Afghanistan will have consequences for decades. Also left behind, and now under Taliban rule, are trillions of dollars of mineral resources in the country. Afghanistan is known to have world-class deposits of lithium, copper, coal, gold, mercury and rare earth elements under its surface. To date, the United States and its allies have been able to keep them untapped, in spite of their value to the “green” energy movement and the massive increases to mine them to vastly increase “green” energy component production. Sadly, the Taliban and their allies will undoubtedly look to quickly exploit this failure as well. According to a recent Bloomberg article, plans may already be underway for the Taliban to work with China to mine those deposits. Should that business relationship develop, you can bet that neither partner will have qualms about using labor and environmental methods that run counter to accepted practices for much of the world. Even with U.S.-led sanctions against trade and business dealings with the Taliban in place, there are legal and illegal ways to work around them. Think that’s a stretch? Remember, China has a more-than-cozy relationship with North Korea. They both have history with bringing desired outcomes to bear — by any means necessary — in an effort to show their might on an international stage. While China and the Taliban work to bring the mineral deposits to market, the American mining industry is stuck in neutral because of misguided public policy. Efforts by anti-development groups and wealthy ideologues have made the process of permitting and opening a mine well beyond common-sense regulation. While the U.S. has incredible quantities of nearly every critical mineral and rare earth element that the “green” movement cries for, you would be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of prospects and projects not under siege by the eco-left and misguided environmental evangelists. Whether by spreading fear about potential environmental catastrophes or through foolish efforts to place protecting wildlife above advancing human life, mining opportunities in America are required to run a never-ending, multi-year obstacle course. In the meantime, the Taliban and China plot their partnership and development of Afghanistan’s mineral riches without hesitation. While China begins to consider how to work around international pressure in doing business with the Taliban, American eco-zealots consider how to keep an American mineral project from moving forward. And while the Taliban and China strategize how to undermine America’s international leadership, the current administration lends credence to the “leave-it-in-the-ground” movement by placing environmental radicals in leadership positions throughout Washington. America deserves better. American workers deserve opportunity. Americans shouldn’t ever again see the greatest country in the world subjected to ridicule on an international stage. Leaving Afghanistan in defeat stings on many levels. Let’s hope the future doesn’t bring anything equivalent — let alone much worse — especially if it will be financed by the development of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth. Rick Whitbeck is the Alaska State Director of Power The Future, a national nonprofit organization that advocates for American energy jobs. Follow him on Twitter @PTFAlaska or contact him at [email protected]

BROWN'S CLOSE: Backpacking, and Other Burdens Part 1

My friend took me on my first overnight backpacking trip last month. Via the Crow Pass trail, we were due to leave Girdwood early in the morning on Saturday and arrive at the Eagle River Nature Center parking lot late Sunday afternoon. I looked forward to this trip for months. I created a curated playlist of songs about walking. I perused Fred Meyer’s selection of freeze-dried instant foods, all set to expire in 2067. I bought a bladder. On the morning of the trip, she left her car in Eagle River, and I drove us to Girdwood. We snapped a fresh face “beginning of the trail selfie” (a tradition according to my friend) and began tottering along with our walking poles. Upon reflection, this would become the “before” shot, to be compared later with the “after” shot, of what shape my body would be in after finishing the trip. The trail began with a 3,500-foot elevation gain. My friend sprang along the trail like a jackrabbit, and I soon lost sight of her. The backpack, taller than my entire torso, made it difficult to balance, and I hobbled along waiting to twist my ankle. The shoulder and chest straps were so tight my breathing was restricted. I’d brought a small portable speaker, currently and fittingly tuned to “Dead Man Walking.” The music broadcasted my presence to my intended audience (bears), and all other collateral damage (any living being). I rounded a corner and found a small group of fellow hikers looking at me bemusedly. “We heard you coming!” they called. “We wondered who was bringing the party!” In the far distance, I saw my friend waiting patiently at the summit. I trudged slowly towards her. After an eternity of crawling uphill – “My backpack….” I sputtered between gasps. “It really…hurts…. Is it supposed…to hurt…like this?” “Well, that’s backpacking!” she sang delightedly. For the first time, I considered the possibility that my friend might be a lunatic. She voluntarily put herself through this pain, multiple times per summer… for fun? She suggested we sit down and have lunch, and I ate three large pieces of cold pizza in quick succession. They were the last pieces of food I could eat that would have had to know the insides of a refrigerator. My friend announced she hates cold pizza. Confirmed, she was a lunatic. I struggled back into my pack, requiring her help because I couldn’t get one arm through the strap; instead, I was hopping around like a chicken. Seeing me struggle, she stared at me quizzically. Then, without warning, she grabbed the shoulder straps, pulled two cords, and they loosened. Relief shot through my chest and shoulders. I took my first real breaths of the day. And then we were off again. I felt lighter than air for about seven minutes before the pack began pulling into my shoulders again as the weight of gravity took hold. I would spend the next day and a half periodically loosening and tightening straps, depending which part of my back was seizing up in that particular moment. Crow Pass covers dramatically different terrain throughout its full twenty-one miles. Starting with the stark elevation gain, hikers pass through snow, down shale coated mountains, through grass so tall and thick you can’t see bears coming, over boulders, through forests, and, of course, crossing Eagle River. Trudging through snow, I started to worry that my newly acquired “backpacking sleeping bag,” rated down to 47 degrees Fahrenheit, was going to be warm enough. Contemplating this chilly prospect, my foot slipped, and with an “Ummm…” by way of announcement to my friend, I tipped over and rolled down the hill. What with the weight of the backpack, I began to roll faster and faster. Ever gaining speed, I hurtled towards the bottom of the mountain, and the large rock wall waiting for me there. Growing up in Fairbanks, I knew the best way to slow down after bailing out on sledding hills was to increase your surface area as much as possible. I spread out my arms and legs and hoped I would slow down. As I passively pondered what life would be like with a spinal injury, I felt my momentum stall, and I stopped sliding about 15 feet from the wall. I sat up, took off the backpack, and looked at my friend, far up the top of the mountain. I’d lost a walking pole and my hat somewhere along my slide. At a loss for anything else to say, I called up to her, “Um, can you get my hat? And I think I lost one of your poles.” She shook her head. “No, let’s keep going. You don’t need them.” This was a moment of ratification on my status as a material girl. I hate losing things. Loath to leave any belonging behind, I stood up, and started climbing back up the hill, justifying my actions to my friend. “I need the pole for balance!” By now, it was mid-afternoon, and my friend was definitely fidgeting because we still had not made it to Eagle River. She wanted to camp at the river that night, and cross first thing Sunday morning when the water was at its lowest. Pole collected, hat on head, and backpack grudgingly placed on, I continued down the mountain, away from the snow. I was thrilled the temperature was warming, and we were seemingly once more in summertime. That’s when my friend cheerily reminded me to crank up the tunes again; we were back in bear country. We entered some tall grass, positively obliterating any potential bears from view. Knowing we were trying to make it to the river, I did my best to pick up the pace, though the ground was covered with giant boulders. If you took your eyes off of your feet for even a second to study the bear infested tall grass, for example, you’d trip and hit your head. Feet burning with new blisters, and my pack once again feeling like the weight of the entire universe on my shoulders, I pouted silently, wondering how I was ever going to make it back to my car by this time tomorrow. Amongst these gloomy thoughts, there was a rustling in the tall grass ahead of us, and we both stopped and seized our bear spray. Two young men emerged, looking mildly amused as they took in the site of us brandishing our weapons. As we lowered our arms, they happily announced that a woman on this side of Eagle River had just been removed from the trail by ambulance helicopter; she’d broken her ankle. Realizing it would take more time to finish the journey with a broken ankle, I decided to just go ahead and continue at my poky pace. My friend must have decided the same thing, because both of us began walking at a noticeably more leisurely rate thereafter. We sat down in the forest to have dinner around five. My friend had a nifty propane heater and a pot, in which we boiled water. We dumped the water into our freeze-dried food bags, and stirred the contents. My dinner was, ostensibly, spaghetti and meatballs; her's beef stroganoff. I eyed both gloopy messes suspiciously. When she told me about the food, I ventured that I would just bring some protein bars, or something. Having largely lived off of Lean Cuisine in college, I’d long since sworn off instant food of any kind. I’d eaten my entire lifetime’s worth over a four-year period, and my allotment was completely used up. My friend, however, insisted I would want hot food and that I really should buy these unique items, guaranteed fresh for 46 years! I stirred my spaghetti with a grimace and took a salty bite. The spaghetti tasted exactly like Lean Cuisine. It did, however, put some pep back into my very tired steps. We cleaned up from our meal, leaving no trace as good backpackers should. Naturally, and just my luck, I was beginning to regret bringing the cold pizza, as the leavings in the bag were beginning to stink. We hopped along, revived from the sodium ladened slop, avoiding tree roots precariously popping up throughout the forest. My friend confirmed we were almost to Eagle River, so we hurried along, trying to finish the day’s journey. With a crack, my left ankle twisted out, and I went down with a yelp. Stay tuned for Part 2. Sarah Brown suffers in silence. Feel free to pester her on Twitter @BrownsClose1, or email her at [email protected]; she rarely fights back. “Close” is a British term for alley or cul-de-sac. For more of Sarah’s musings, visit Browns-Close.com.

COMMENTARY: ‘Buy American’ policy must start from the ground up

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States has lost roughly 500,000 good-paying manufacturing jobs. That’s a heavy toll for such an important part of the national economy. However, the Biden administration is working to rebuild U.S. manufacturing with a new rule intended to increase the American-made content of goods purchased by the federal government. Each year, the U.S. government spends roughly $600 billion on procurement, including everything from furniture and trucks to helicopter blades. Spending that money on American-made goods could provide a great boost for U.S. manufacturers. The key, though, is to make sure that this spending goes to domestic U.S. companies — not producers in China. However, China continues to massively subsidize its state-owned factories — including billions of dollars annually for everything from steel and electronics to solar panels and electric vehicles. This has helped to make China the world’s primary supplier for key industrial commodities, and also put many high-tech U.S. firms out of business. Under the Biden administration’s proposed rule change, the threshold for American-made content in goods purchased by the U.S. government would immediately rise to 60 percent, or 5 percent above existing standards. Further increases would be phased in, with a goal of 75 percent domestic content by the end of the decade. Higher domestic content requirements could greatly benefit new industries such as America’s burgeoning electric vehicle manufacturers. However, China is already far ahead in the EV industry, and is planning 107 lithium-ion battery mega-factories. In contrast, the U.S. has only nine such factories in the planning stages. Even if the Biden administration succeeds in directing more taxpayer money to American-made products, all of that planning could still fall short. That’s because the United States remains heavily dependent on China and other countries for the metals and minerals needed to manufacture EVs and other renewable energy technologies. That’s significant, since the International Energy Agency estimates the demand for critical minerals in the energy sector alone could increase roughly six times by 2040. Countries that can supply these important materials will enjoy a significant geopolitical and economic advantage. Unfortunately, the United States now relies on China for many of these resources, including 80 percent of its rare earth metal needs. Overall, America’s dependence on imported metals and minerals has doubled in just the past two decades. It’s deeply troubling that the United States is so reliant on China — a country that uses forced labor and toxic environmental practices — to supply the metals and minerals needed to manufacture advanced technologies. Getting the American-made effort right — and making the most out of the administration’s new industrial policy — will mean reducing this reliance on China. It’s time to bring these supply chains home, including mining and critical materials. Failing to do so will lead to taxpayer money slipping away to China. And that would mean an unfortunate loss of good jobs and national self-sufficiency. Michael Stumo is CEO of the Coalition for a Prosperous America. Follow him at @michael_stumo.

COMMENTARY: Poor and low-income Americans hurt the most by inflation

How can we help working families the most? Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour is a popular solution, but it’s a short-sighted one given the reality that inflation — the silent assassin of Americans’ livelihoods, particularly for the poor — is now running the hottest it has in decades. The Consumer Price Index has increased 5.4 percent since last year, as announced on July 13 by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The monthly rate was 0.6 percent in May but 0.9 percent in June. If this rate persists, our nation will experience double-digit inflation. A 0.9 percent monthly rate translates to an 11.4 percent annual rate, a level not seen since the 1970s. Considering all the recent deficit spending by Congress and expansionary policies by the Federal Reserve, expect more of the same, or worse. In fact, according to a survey of economists in a recent issue of The Wall Street Journal, “Americans should brace themselves” because economists are waking up to the prospect of higher inflation, expecting “brisk price increases for a while.” Economic history indicates deflation should be the norm. In fact, innovation spawns increased productivity that allows prices to fall, which should show up as deflation. We have the opposite: productivity gains with inflation. This outcome places the blame squarely on monetary and fiscal policy. Who gets hurt the most? Those who can least afford dramatic price increases for staples like food and rent, and those whose income growth typically lags others — the poor and low-income Americans. Consider this: The most recent mid-year consumer expenditure report from the BLS found that consumers in the lowest income quintile spend 82.2 percent of their income on housing, transportation, food and health care, compared to 64.4 percent for the highest quintile. A 5 percent inflation rate would cost those in the lowest quintile an additional $1,156 for these items on their already tight budgets, averaging $28,141. A 10 percent inflation rate would double those costs to $2,312. Worse, those in the lowest quintile are unable to save for their future, and inflation erodes the value of the little savings they do have. On average, those in the lowest quintile purchased only $563 in personal insurance or toward their pensions, compared to $19,736 in the highest quintile. This disparity guarantees the poor will be inadequately prepared for retirement or unforeseen loss or tragedy. The impact of inflation was illustrated in a recent focus group session on working class families conducted by my organization, the Georgia Center for Opportunity. Our focus group consisted of working-class African-Americans who did not have a college degree and who were not employed in a managerial position or on track to achieve a management level position. One of the women relayed her experience with financial stress up close. She was tempted to quit her job because the cost of daycare was so high. She said that either the minimum wage should be increased or the cost of living should be lowered. That was an incredible observation. What Jazmine referred to is all about promoting the purchasing power of all Americans. We know that raising the minimum wage has numerous negative impacts — from reducing employment among those groups that minimum-wage laws are designed to help to running mom-and-pop small businesses out of commission in favor of big corporations (think Amazon). The better option is for Congress to renew our nation’s purchasing power policy and get its fiscal house in order. Instead of devising new ways to spend more money we don’t have, Congress and the Biden administration should guide the federal government to live within its means and ease restrictions on economic growth. We don’t need more fiscal stimulus to fuel more inflation. Congress can start by reinstating the actively-looking-for-work rule for those receiving unemployment benefits. Our leaders can then put a halt on other benefits that create disincentives to work and benefit cliffs — such as pandemic-related food stamps — for a public health crisis that, for all practical purposes, is gone. At the same time, we need more production and entrepreneurial risk-taking on the supply side. The sooner we respond in ways that focus on cost-of-living changes for people like Jazmine and promote the purchasing power of all Americans, the better. Erik Randolph is director of research for the Georgia Center for Opportunity.

COMMENTARY: Individualism makes us altruistic and happy

Individualism is good, collectivism is bad. That’s what I first concluded as a teenager after reading Friedrich Hayek’s seminal treatise, “The Road to Serfdom.” Every life experience since then has confirmed my hunch. That makes it all the more irritating when opponents of individualism, out of ignorance or bad faith, keep distorting what it is. A particularly misleading charge is that individualism should somehow be tantamount to selfishness and egoism. Individualists think only of themselves, this narrative goes, whereas people in collectivist societies take care of their group. The opposite is closer to the truth. That’s the conclusion of forthcoming research by four psychologists: Shawn Rhoads, Rebecca Ryan, and Abigail Marsh at Georgetown University and Devon Gunter at Harvard. They did an impressive data dive, in which they painted what amounts to a psycho-cultural atlas of the world. One thing they measured was not only objective well-being in different countries, such as wealth and health, but also people’s subjective perception that they’re flourishing or thriving. They also mapped the world according to six cultural markers defined by the late Dutch social scientist Geert Hofstede. Some countries value power hierarchies more than others. Some, in the lingo, are more “masculine” — prizing achievement and heroism, say — while others treasure consensus and cooperation. Some cultures are more comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity, others less so. Some emphasize the long term, others the short term. Some cherish restraint, others embrace indulgence. And then there’s individualism. It marks cultures that value people’s autonomy in making personal choices and seeking fulfillment and self-expression. In contrast, collectivist societies extol subordinating personal autonomy to the needs of the group and one’s own place in it. The authors also investigated altruism. They mined data on everything from volunteer work and random acts of kindness to charitable giving, donations of blood, kidneys or bone marrow, and even the humane treatment of animals. One relationship jumped out from all this number crunching: Individualism, subjective well-being and altruism are intimately linked, as these maps show. By contrast, countries with collectivist cultures, such as China or Ukraine, tend to rank low on altruism. It’s an open question whether these are just correlations, or whether causation is at work, and in which direction. But according to Marsh, one of the authors, it appears that individualism makes people thrive, which in turn makes them more altruistic, which makes them feel even better about themselves, and so on in a virtuous cycle. As a Hayekian, I find this reassuring more than surprising. The collectivist priority given to the group is really a form of discrimination in favor of insiders, whether defined by genetic or ideological kinship, and against outsiders, including strangers. Collectivist “solidarity” is thus neither totally voluntary nor inclusive, and “harmony” tends to be coerced and parochial. It stops at class in communism, at tribe or nation in fascism, at sect in religious fundamentalism. By contrast, the individualist emphasis on personal autonomy and freedom may loosen the social bonds of kinship but also opens the mind toward people outside our in-group, including total strangers. In that sense, individualism rhymes with cosmopolitanism. I imagine that the Good Samaritan in Jesus’ parable was an individualist — and felt happy after helping. But why are some cultures more individualistic than others? Economic development certainly seems to help. The more prosperous and safe you are, the less you need to rely on your immediate in-group just to survive, and the more you can pursue independent goals and experiment with new acquaintances. And yet economics can provide only part of the answer, since countries like Japan have grown rich without becoming individualistic. A more ambitious explanation goes all the way back to the Middle Ages. Very early on and for entirely unrelated motivations, the Catholic Church discouraged old traditions like cousin marriage and polygamy. Cumulatively, and long before the Protestant Reformation, these policies weakened kinship institutions and encouraged the spread of nuclear families. This forced Western Europeans to look beyond their in-groups and find other affiliations, including individual definitions of identity. Modernity — and institutions from English common law to market economics — only turbo-boosted the trend. That would explain why individualism, and thus altruism, is not unique to, but much more prevalent in “the West,” which in this context means cultures that historically originated in lands with a Catholic heritage, even if they are predominantly Protestant or secular today. All this should be uplifting. The origins of individualism may have been Western, but its future appears to be global, because it is spreading almost everywhere. With luck, this will lead ever more people on our planet out of serfdom, making them more open-minded and generous toward others, not to mention happier and free.

BROWN'S CLOSE: A study in horse racing

In honor of the upcoming Independence Day holiday, and as part of America’s newfound freedom from COVID-19, I went to Louisville, Kentucky, and met up with a longtime friend who lives on the East Coast. We spent a day at the racetrack at Churchill Downs on one of the last days of the season. If there is a sport with more specific forms of jargon than horse racing, I do not know what that sport is. Horses are measured in hands, tracks are measured in furloughs, and jockeys are measured in times in or out of the money. Guests are in turn judged by whether they know what it means to dress in “track casual,” and by whether they can distinguish between a Woodford Spire and an Oaks Lily. Upon arrival, spectators are welcomed to the stadium by a statue of Barbaro, a beloved Kentucky Derby winner. Unlike elite Triple Crown champions, however, Barbaro holds the distinction of being shot after he failed to win the Preakness Stakes. His demise solidified his legendary status to the point of inspiring an entire society, “The Friends of Barbaro.” Next, guests are presented with programs containing the daily facts and figures about the lengths of the various races, the jockeys, the horses, and the horses’ colors. Charts are detailed and include how much money the horse has won cumulatively over its career, when it last raced, how it races in dry conditions versus wet conditions, and its projected odds of winning. Given we were at the racetrack, we reasoned it was only logical that we start betting. Unfortunately, it is a moral failing of mine that I never carry cash. My friend, however, thoughtfully brought $23 to the track, and we amiably agreed to spend $10 of her money. We walked up confidently to the ticket machine and inserted the bill. After that, there was nothing for us to do but stare at the complex mix of buttons and blinking lights displayed on the screen. There were options for a horse to “Win,” “Place,” or “Show.” We could bet the “Daily Double,” “Exacta,” “Trifecta,” or “Superfecta.” And that does not even include the “Pick 3,” or “Pick 4.” We argued a bit, debating what each bet would mean. “Daily Double means we can bet on two things at once,” I pronounced, based on no evidence. “Pick 3 is that you can pick three horses in the same race,” she countered, sounding equally confident. In between assertions, we stared open mouthed at the screen. We spent so much time gawking that our session expired, and we received a ticket printout, but no $10. “Wait,” she asked. “But what did we bet on?” Nothing. We bet on nothing. We pulled the ticket out and gaped at that for a while. It most closely resembled the test print sheet when setting up a new printer. We looked around, wondering what to do with a $10 slip of paper tied to no discernable value. Behind us, there was a long line of desks where people could place bets, but there were signs reading, “$50 minimum.” We walked up to the nearest desk, where an old, stooped man looked at us curiously. “Hi,” my friend spoke loudly, and to the point. “We have this ticket here –” “Oh, did you win?” he twanged. “Well, no,” she laughed. “Our session expired.” “That’s alright.” He took the ticket and examined it. “It’s for $10,” she explained. “Can we exchange it for a bet on something else?” “Sure, sure,” he agreed. “But it says it’s $50 minimum. Can you help us?” He chuckled. “Ma’am, I can do anything I want.” “How would you bet?” she asked. Then, doubting her straightforwardness, “Or, are you not allowed to tell us?” He looked at her wryly. Yeah, yeah, we know, you can do anything you want. We opened the program, and together, the three of us poured over the nine or so races to take place. As we only had $10, we decided to bet on the next race only. Among others, we could choose from contestants known as Good Penny, Cuzzywuzzy, and Parking Ticket. “So, it’s $5 per bet, and you can bet on horses to win, come in second, or third, or you can bet on a horse to come in either first, or second, or third.” I wasn’t sure what the difference was, and apparently, neither was my friend. We looked back at the booklet. “Who do you want to bet on?” I asked. It was her $10, so it seemed only fair she should choose the horse. “Oh, I don’t care, whoever looks good to you.” I peered over the complicated rankings in tiny print with my nose pressed close to the page. Good Penny won the most money, was not the crowd favorite, and had the luckiest name. All of these seemed like good omens. “Can we put $5 on Good Penny to finish first?” The ticket agent’s expression told me what I needed to know. I could do anything I wanted. “You mean Number 11? You want to put $5 on Number 11?” “Uh, yeah that’s right.” He entered the information into his computer. “Alright, how about second?” She and I frowned. Appearing to be talking to the deeply dense, he spoke slower. “You can also bet on him to come in second. Do you want to do that?” Yeah, that sounded good. “Alright,” he nodded, “what’s the next bet?” Cuzzywuzzy had the same ranking as Good Penny. “$5 on Cuzzywuzzy to win?” He looked at me pityingly. “You mean $5 on Number 5?” “Uh, yeah, that’s what I mean.” He pulled our new tickets out of his machine. They were indistinguishable from the first ticket test printer page. “That will be $5.” My friend, who had been somewhat disinterested in the horse picking process, snapped back to attention. “We had $10 in credit.”  He was really looking at us like we were hopeless now.   “I know, that will be $5.” She and I squinched our faces. “I don’t understand,” she challenged. “If we paid you $10 for two $5 bets, then how do we owe you $5?” “When you bet on the same horse twice, that’s $10,” he rattled back impatiently. Feeling like those instructions had been less than clear at the beginning, we forked over another of her $5. Racing math ultimately proved to be its own entire field. In addition to the vagaries of paying $15 for a $10 bet, we eventually discovered that one can win $7 for a $30 bet. By the end of the afternoon, I was holding my head and muttering that I was never going to retire at this rate; gambling, by gosh, is just not a good investment. Still holding my head, I bought us each a round of mint juleps, and we went back to our seats to watch the respective fortunes of Bodacious Baby, Buy Me Candy, and Slim Slow Slider. Passing through the rows of fastidiously arranged green folding chairs – “What is that?” a scandalized voiced bellowed from our left. Another man, similar in advanced age to the ticket teller, pointed accusatorially at our drinks. While I am prone to ignore comments made about my food and beverage selections, my friend has never met a stranger. “Mint juleps!” she replied enthusiastically. He shook his head. “You two aren’t from around here, are you?” Well, this was obvious because my friend and I also didn’t know what it meant to be dressed in “track casual.” “I could tell because you’re drinking those,” he continued, nodding to our drinks. The mint was so voluminous, it looked like we were carrying around tiny gardens in commemorative Kentucky Derby glasses. “You don’t like them?” My friend sounded genuinely surprised. “Yeah, no locals like them,” he scoffed. Ah. “Well, what do the locals drink?” I asked. He held up a can of Budweiser. Honestly, though, the joke was on them. My friend won $74 on Good Penny, and I got three servings of my daily vegetable intake. Sarah Brown is straight edge. Feel free to invite her to things that are risky, hedonistic, or otherwise a good time, but honestly, she’ll just kill your buzz. Instead, find her on Twitter @BrownsClose1. “Close” is a British term for alley or cul-de-sac. For more of Sarah’s musings, visit Browns-Close.com.

GUEST COMMENTARY: Budget gave minority no choice but to vote ‘no’

It’s time Alaska’s government was honest with its people. It’s time we started following our laws. Symbolic of our problem is the “do as I say, not as I do” mentality ingrained in Juneau and found in the recent essay from an Anchorage senator from the one of Alaska’s wealthiest districts. The operating budget, which keeps Alaska’s government open for business, failed to pass the Legislature with enough support to make it effective in time for the new fiscal year. It is, in fact, a defective budget. The state constitution (Article 2, sec. 18) is very clear on this point: Unless a supermajority in both the House and Senate agree on a different date, all bills go into effect 90 days after enactment. This operating budget failed to garner the two-thirds votes necessary to shorten that effective date. There is no legal or constitutional workaround, as has been done with prorated per diem, lowering the annual Permanent Fund dividend amount, or blowing through a 90-day voter-imposed session time limit. The Constitution has these rules for a reason. The government will not have funds on July 1 unless legislators negotiate in good faith to reach a real compromise. A beginning of the solution would be asking critics like the good senator, and others who share her perspective, to spend a little less time accusing Alaskans of “greed and entitlement,” and asking those of us who voted “nay” what our motivations were. I’m willing to sit down and talk to any one of my colleagues, despite what our critics are attempting to portray. My vote belongs to the constituents of my district. I represent one of the most conservative House districts in the state. My neighbors overwhelmingly support following the PFD law. In fact, they strongly believe they are rightfully owed the PFD money first taken during Gov. Bill Walker’s tenure and then by the Legislature during ensuring years. Further, they believe the PFD should be paid first, not last. This budget did not reflect any of my district’s values. In fact, this bully budget was fundamentally coercive and directly used Mat-Su Borough children and elderly as political pawns. Members of the respective majorities employed budgetary parlor games such as pitting the amount of the PFD against capital projects such as the Houston Middle School (condemned from the 2018 earthquake), the Palmer Veteran’s Home, highways, infrastructure, and resource development against the fastest growing and second most populous area of the state. These tactics are non-starters and embarrassingly transparent. Not held hostage in the budget were a swimming pool and a road to nowhere in Sitka benefitting the co-chair of Senate Finance (who is a member of the budget Conference Committee), and road construction in Fairbanks. These and other items were not used to leverage votes of other legislators; yet those legislators have no problem lecturing the House Minority members about the need to vote for this budget and “do the right thing.” Real compromise is a two-way street. Worse yet, making these changes to the budget, in the 11th hour, behind closed doors, and with no consideration to me or my House Republican colleagues, fails to build the trust we need in order to work for every Alaskan. Our hand was forced. We were obligated to demand a budget that more accurately reflects the values and needs of all Alaskans. I have never minced words. I would not support this budget, including the effective date, without compromises that reflect the needs and priorities of all regions. To suggest anything else is an attempt to gaslight the public; to keep them from recognizing the fundamental failure of House and Senate leadership to pass a legal and timely budget. The effective date clause, the CBR vote and reverse sweep are the only levers available to the minority caucus members of the House to use that ensure the voices of the nearly 325,000 Alaskans they represent are heard. The June 16 vote in the State House is a glaring failure to recognize that necessity. There is still time to come together for and fix this, but the minority must have the concerns of its constituents heard. Less vitriol, fewer accusations of citizens being greedy by asking that existing statute be followed, and less budgetary skullduggery, will solve this impasse before July 1. The House Republican Caucus is still at the table, and we are ready to work. The question is, are those in critical positions ready to come to the table and find real compromises instead of expecting capitulation? Rep. Kevin McCabe, R-Wasilla, represents District 8 in the Alaska State House.

GUEST COMMENTARY: The budget is not defective, and governor should sign it

It’s time to stop this political nonsense. The governor said he won’t sign the budget because it’s defective. That is not true. The main part of the budget passed by the Legislature is fully balanced and funded. This means teachers, public health nurses, the courts and road crews can keep working after July 1. There is absolutely no need to send out layoff notices or shut down government. That is, unless the governor continues to prioritize politics and the dividend above everything else. The irony is, this is pretty much the same budget the governor proposed four months ago except for an affordable dividend. Yet the governor’s own advocacy group sent out a social media blast last week asking Alaskans to call their legislators to vote no on his own budget. The governor is hanging his hat on the “effective date clause,” simply because he did not get the large dividend he promised in his campaign. News flash: We can’t afford it without raiding the Permanent Fund or instituting taxes on all Alaskans. Here are the facts. The budget the Legislature recently voted on comes in four parts. Part one is the “base budget” and is the meat and potatoes for funding state government. It has reductions, is balanced, has all the funding available as of July 1, and covers education, Medicaid, the ferry, the courts, the Department of Transportation, the departments of Revenue, Fish and Game and pretty much all of regular operations for state government. It also funds a $525 dividend for eligible Alaskans. It requires just a majority vote to pass, meaning 11 in the Senate and 21 in the House. This was successfully passed by both bodies. Part two is the “reverse sweep,” an annual accounting function. This funds about $196 million of a whole bunch of operating programs scattered throughout the budget for things like the WWAMI program for medical school students, the Alaska Performance Scholarship Fund for college students, community assistance, victim’s restitution fund, energy subsidies for rural Alaska and an additional $500 added to Alaskans’ dividends. The reverse sweep also covers $140 million of the governor’s priority capital projects. A no vote is essentially voting against the governor’s own capital budget. It requires a three-quarters vote to pass — 15 in the Senate and 30 in the House. This failed both bodies last week. Part three is the “Constitutional Budget Reserve” — CBR, the state savings account — access vote. A yes vote would have funded half of the state reimbursement of local school bond debt, a payment toward oil taxes credits owed by the state, and another $48 million toward the dividend. The CBR vote also requires a three-fourths vote of both bodies and failed last week. Part four is the “effective date clause.” This requires a two-thirds vote to pass — 14 in the Senate and 27 in the House. This passed in the Senate but failed in the House. The effective date in the budget says July 1, 2021, and if the governor simply signs the base budget, we can avoid a government shutdown. Or he can continue to play politics because a slim majority of the Legislature refuses to overdraw the Permanent Fund in order to pay out billions of dollars for a dividend. Does the governor think that we must have a two-thirds procedural vote every year to avoid a government shutdown? This is not what the framers of the constitution intended. It’s a poor, politically driven interpretation and counter to more than 40 years of legal opinions and Alaska Supreme Court cases. Much of this is déjà vu from two years ago, when the reverse sweep and CBR votes also failed. The governor attempted to call a special session in Wasilla and that whole debacle imploded. Luckily, there are still a few folks remaining in the Legislature who advocate for a long-term, balanced view for our government. This budget could move forward as is and at least avoid a complete government shutdown. Please call the governor’s office and tell him to sign it. Sen. Natasha von Imhof, R-Anchorage, represents Alaska Senate District L, chairs the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee and serves on the Senate Finance Committee and Senate Resources Committee.

GUEST COMMENTARY: A way forward exists for infrastructure investments

Holding the distinction of the longest-serving member of Congress is an honor, but I’m more thankful for the experience and knowledge I’ve gained in those years. Through 10 U.S. presidents, 10 speakerships, and the cyclical flip-flop between majority and minority, I’ve had a front-row seat to the negotiations behind some of the nation’s most transformative legislation. It’s come with no shortage of lessons, but perhaps the most important is an old adage: Where there is a will, there is a way. There is undoubtedly a will for major national infrastructure investments. Regardless of congressional district or state, Americans across the country have long called for action to address aging, outdated, and unsafe infrastructure. Instead, “Infrastructure Week” has devolved into a punchline, and the country’s hopes for smart, targeted investments in their communities have waned year after year. It’s long past time for Washington, D.C., to come together and agree on an infrastructure plan that meets the needs of our modern economy, reforms the permitting process, and puts our core transportation programs on sustainable footing. Further delay poses an existential threat to our economy’s long-term strength, and without infrastructure, our global competitiveness is on the line. We must not risk falling behind the rest of the world. While the momentum behind White House and Republican negotiations seems to change on a daily basis, I firmly believe the path forward is the bipartisan way. That’s why I submitted my own infrastructure framework, which takes a sober look at the situation while steering clear of partisan orthodoxy. Infrastructure is ubiquitous and serves as the foundation for our economy and quality of life. We cannot and should not take a near-term, cycle-to-cycle approach. It’s too important not to receive input from Congress as a whole, making it vital to move a bill through regular order. As discussions so far have proven, it will not be an easy road, but as former Chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, I have no doubt that it is possible. We must remember that Congress is not a stranger to the definition of infrastructure. As a body, we regularly agree on and pass infrastructure measures, such as Surface Transportation Reauthorization legislation, the Water Resources Development Act, and even in the Farm Bill, proving consensus is within reach. Knowing this also alleviates the pressure for one legislative package to be a silver bullet for all infrastructure needs, and directs focus to critical physical infrastructure. My colleagues in Congress should reject the notion that there must be one all-encompassing bill or no bill at all. This is a false choice. Instead, they should replace it with a steadfast resolve to put in place tools that keep Americans safe, improve lives, and keep the country competitive for future generations. If we want to build and sustain a robust national transportation system and upgrade our nation’s infrastructure, we need to commit to a few specific pillars, beginning with an honest funding mechanism. We must also understand that infrastructure investments are not a one-shot deal. Infrastructure investments at every level of government require maintenance and repair. That is why Congress created the Highway Trust Fund, or HTF, and enacted a federal excise tax on gasoline and diesel fuels, which are the principal contributors to the HTF. The “gas tax,” as it is commonly referred to, has not been raised since 1993, and as a result, has lost 40 to 45 percent of its purchasing power. At the same time, federal fuel efficiency standards have resulted in lower gas tax receipts as overall gas consumption has declined. The HTF was created to fund so-called “core infrastructure.” Core infrastructure, like roads, bridges, safety, transit, and rail, are undoubtedly responsibilities of the federal government. Congress currently funds and routinely updates them through so-called “highway bills.” Over the last 20 years, I believe that much of the controversy over how much to invest and where to invest in our nation’s transportation system will be alleviated by putting the HTF on a stable trajectory to secure long-term solvency. That is why my framework calls for modernizing the gas tax to account for post-1993 inflation. To stabilize the HTF, my reforms go even further. My plan calls for a phase-out of the gas tax into a user fee, or Vehicle Mileage Tax, for gasoline and diesel vehicles over at least ten years, and addresses the electric vehicle free-rider problem by phasing in a VMT over five years. Funding for the HTF will be transitioned away from a gas tax and into a user fee-based system. This transition will be justly targeted and fine-tuned, not only to recoup the costs that vehicles impose on the roads, but to ensure that electric vehicle owners, like myself, pay our fair share. Secondly, if Congress agrees — as I believe it should — to spend additional monies on other forms of infrastructure, such as airports, ports and waterways, clean water infrastructure, electrical generation, grid modernization, and broadband, then I fervently believe that Congress should not engage in budget gimmicks, but must raise the revenues to pay for this spending. My plan would include a slight increase in the corporate tax rate, excluding small and family-owned businesses, to offset some of the cost of this additional spending. The increase would be limited to no more than a 4 percent increase to a rate of 25 percent. Congress should recognize that there is wisdom in the “user pays user benefits” principle. Corporations benefit from and are users of America’s infrastructure. The benefits of a modernized national transportation system will outweigh the costs of a rate increase over the long term. Doing the hard work of providing long term certainty for transportation funding mechanisms will go a long way toward giving the market clear signals on where we are going as a nation. And thanks to rapid technological advancements, the world looks and operates a whole lot differently than it did when I was first elected. It will continue to evolve, and we need to plan for that reality by harnessing innovative technology to maximize benefits for Americans in every corner of our country. A look at nationwide broadband gaps and recent electric grid failures illustrate the distance the country must go to meet that goal. For Alaska, the climb is even steeper. Our state’s relative infancy and challenging geography have kept access to even basic infrastructure out of reach for many. More than 80 percent of Alaska communities are off the road system and only accessible by water or air, presenting unique challenges ranging from energy affordability to the need for strong maritime infrastructure. Addressing Alaska’s needs and the distinct infrastructure needs of states across the country will provide the nation with a fortified, resilient foundation, both physically and economically. In the short term, we can expect federal spending to spur job creation in all parts of Alaska and the country, particularly as we continue to rebound from the pandemic. In the long term, we’d rebuild the advantages that allowed our country to prosper up to this point, such as connected transportation routes and cost-effective, reliable power. Additionally, we would maintain our competitive edge by boosting America’s self-sufficiency and versatility. To move Alaska and the country ahead, Republicans and Democrats must find a way forward together on infrastructure. As the Chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, I understood the importance of reaching across the aisle to forge common ground. I know how to get this done. In 2005, President George W. Bush signed my bill, SAFETEA-LU, into law. At that time, it was the largest surface transportation investment in our nation’s history, and enjoyed the support of then-Sen. Joe Biden. Sixteen years later, I ask now-President Biden to give my proposals a fair hearing so that we may set course for the next century of sound American infrastructure. Through my proposal and continued conversations, I’m committed to the process and seeing a bipartisan infrastructure bill pass through Congress. I call on my friends in both chambers and on both sides of the aisle to make that commitment with me. Don Young is Alaska’s representative in the U.S. House.

GUEST COMMENTARY: ‘Twilight’ leaders still have workplace skills to offer

Looking for talent seems to be top of everyone’s mind, leaving it to creative problem solving to address gaps in talent at all levels of the organization. Recently there seems to be a trend of Baby Boomers coming in and out of retirement. At first glance many assumed that this was for economic reasons, however during recent interviews we are discovering anything but. During a recent interview with “Bob,” we discussed the outlook for employment for a 60-something. He said that he just isn’t ready to be put out to pasture. His career, spanning over 40 years varied with time spent in a variety of industries, all unique to Alaska. Along the way, like many Alaskans, his career path ebbed and flowed with the economy and with industry trends. What he thought was the end of his career, included a retirement party and a warm send off from friends and colleagues. Just a few months later Bob found himself bored, and he is not alone. In their twilight many executives leave their career subject matter experts within a particular discipline. Tired of the “same old grind” and ready for new adventures, they depart their career finding pleasure in the freedoms of retirement, yet not quite ready to retire their talents completely. Surprisingly, many retirees would rather be given an opportunity to leverage their talents and actually learn a new industry or acquire new skills and companies are better for it. In Bob’s case, he is curious and interested in taking on interim leadership roles. His desire, like many of his peers, is not to consult or move out of retirement completely, but to provide a meaningful and necessary role that supports teams while they transition. In one effort, a retiree might be an “Interim COO” helping to keep operations on track while recruitment efforts are under way. This allows for continuity while leveraging internal staff and ensuring they don’t take on more than they should. Ultimately not overtaxing a CEO or subordinate that would typically take on the role during a transition. The interim approach also offers a fresh and experienced perspective. There is a large pool of able, workforce ready and proven leaders to help where needed. They are far beyond a box store greeter and willing to leverage their experience. Engaging these leaders is good for morale and good for business. Paula Bradison is the CEO and President of Alaska Executive Search and Bradison Management Group LLC.

GUEST COMMENTARY: Alaskans should be good stewards of our home

It’s a great time of year, when Alaskans emerge from the long, dark winter and launch eagerly into the great outdoors, ready to experience again the freedom and natural beauty for which our state is so justifiably celebrated. As we prepare to head out fishing, hiking, boating, camping, four-wheeling or sightseeing, Alaskans should be mindful of our responsibility to respect our common natural resources, and recommit ourselves to being great stewards of the lands we love by keeping our state clean and litter-free this summer. We Alaskans pride ourselves on doing things our own way. We “don’t care how they do it Outside,” and we’re proud of our reputation for taking good care of the special place we call home. Our reputation for pristine natural beauty supports a healthy lifestyle for ourselves, and a thriving visitor industry whose benefits extend statewide from city to village. But while most of us do our part to maintain high standards of outdoor care and cleanliness, the bad behavior of even a few can literally trash Alaska’s reputation. Too many of us have seen the evidence in too many places: piles of empty bottles or food wrappers, carelessly discarded fish carcasses, overflowing dumpsters, and the telltale wisps of toilet paper blowing in the roadside wind. Last summer During last summer’s Alaska’s COVID “hunker down” — which most of us conducted outdoors — heavy weekend use at the Kasilof River Special Use Area on the Kenai Peninsula saw dumpsters overflowing with trash and an unsightly campground that produced ugly images in the news and on social media. Sadly, with travel from Outside visitors restricted by the pandemic, Alaskans had only ourselves to blame for this embarrassing scene. Simple practices like “pack it in, pack it out” make a world of difference when we are all sharing the facilities and public use areas. As commissioners, we lead departments dedicated to fulfilling our constitutional responsibility to conserve and develop our state’s land, water, fish and wildlife for the common benefit of the people. As part of this mission, we are proud to support Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s “Unlocking Alaska” initiative, asserting state management authority over navigable waters and submerged lands, just as promised to Alaska at statehood. Alaskans can help strengthen this effort by making sure we know who owns the lands and waters where we are recreating and by being respectful users, whether the ownership is state, federal or private. A case in point is the popular Copper River dipnet fishery near Chitina. Those who drive the Copper River Highway to access the public salmon resource at the end find themselves on private land, most of it owned by Ahtna Inc., the Alaska Native regional corporation, and the Chitina Native Corp., the area village corporation. Having endured the damage caused by a few bad actors in the past, these private landowners are justified in charging fees to defray the costs of maintaining their land, cleaning up the trash and repairing damage, and in some cases restoring desecration of Alaska Native burial sites. Such behavior has consequences, not just on a local or state level, but on the national stage, as well. Our state is under national scrutiny, with important resource development vital to our state’s continued prosperity being blocked because of perceptions that Alaskans are not willing or able to protect our own environment. Alaskans trashing public and private land lend credibility to the claims of anti-development forces that we can’t be trusted to protect our own environment. They strengthen the case of those who want to impose federal authority to look over our shoulder to keep Alaska “clean.” We are Alaskans. We respect our communities and love our land. It just takes a little consideration, a bit of thoughtfulness, and some preparation to be good stewards of public land and respectful visitors on private land. If you pack it in, pack it out. Leave the trail or campsite cleaner than you found it. Pick up after your pets. Be a good example of the kind of Alaska outdoorsman that you wish all visitors would be. When we do, we demonstrate to ourselves and the world that we Alaskans care for our land, and are more than capable of managing our common resources responsibly without the federal government or outside special interests telling us how we should care for our own home. Corri A. Feige is Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. Doug Vincent-Lang is Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game

GUEST COMMENTARY: Will Manchin, Murkowski, Biden cave to extremists?

Last weekend, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., became a lightning rod for the extreme progressive wing of his party when he stood firm in support of the filibuster. While the term “filibuster” gets thrown around — usually in conjunction with colorful language — a lot by folks in Washington, D.C., it is a sensible procedural step for the majority of America. It keeps a party with a slight majority from ram-rodding bad policies through Congress. It represents a check-and-balance to executive overreach, and in this case, a roadblock to many of the Biden Administration’s most radical campaign priorities; ones that would harm Alaska and our jobs, revenues and in areas related to states’ rights. As it stands today, relative moderate Joe Manchin might be the most powerful member of the U.S. Senate, with Alaska’s Sen. Lisa Murkowski right behind him. They, and their centrist colleagues in both parties, can move legislation forward, or kill it in their body. Right now, infrastructure spending, federal voting legislation, Supreme Court packing and the so-called “existential threat of climate change” are being championed by zealots who don’t want compromise, but rather, radical transformations with the way America views and acts on their issues. Without the filibuster, 51 Senators (or 50 and uber-progressive Vice President Kamala Harris casting a the tie-breaking vote) could pass legislation, things could look very different for Americans moving forward. Filibusters aren’t the only topic with fires burning around it in our nation’s capital. Also on the hot seat is an area crucial to Alaska: energy policy. Every Alaskan is touched in numerous ways by federal energy priorities. From fuel prices to upholding legal lease sales, and nearly a third of our private-sector jobs being driven by resource development (not to mention our annual Permanent Fund Dividends), what happens in Washington, D.C. has a direct impact on our day-to-day lives. With the Administration kowtowing to extreme viewpoints on a “just transition” from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, which includes losing American energy independence and ceding energy market dominance to other foreign governments, Alaskans should be furious with most of the decisions coming from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Even the one “win” for our resource-centric economy — Biden announcing his administration would not fight the massive Willow project in the NPR-A — was followed by his Interior Department shuttering development of completed, binding leases in ANWR’s 10-02 area. For you and me, and everyone who works in or relies on our energy sector for a paycheck or to heat their homes or power their vehicles here in Alaska, blocking the insanity of the Biden agenda is a good thing. After all, we don’t want these bills ever seeing the light of day, let alone passing. But for the wildlife-over-human-life activists on the Left, it’s a different story. As The Hill reported last week, “On Friday, a few dozen activists from the Sunrise Movement flocked to the White House — and plan to do so again — to urge Biden to abandon infrastructure talks with Republicans and pass lofty climate change legislation with just Democratic votes. They asked for Biden to directly meet with progressive leaders, including their executive director Varshini Prakash, and ensure the creation of a Civilian Climate Corps that they say would put 1.5 million people back to work. ‘To watch him prioritize Republicans in creating his plan [rather] than the young people who elected him, we cannot let Biden off the hook,’ Audrey Lin, an organizer with Sunrise, said at the Friday protest.” Which leads us back to Manchin, Biden and Murkowski. For the two Democrats, each will be under immense pressure from their far-Left base. During the first few months of the administration, Manchin did his pal Biden a favor by shouldering much of the political pressure. Then the President threw his long-time ally under the bus last week by saying he votes with Republicans more than Democrats (which is not true, by the way). With Manchin taking the high road, but still unwilling to acquiesce to the fringe and move far to the left, the barbarians are at the gate for both men. No wonder the President decided to leave the US for his first foreign trip. Unfortunately for him, many of his problems will be there when he returns. If they can’t pull Manchin or Biden left, the next attacks will be against Murkowski (and, to a lesser extent, Sens. Susan Collins and Mitt Romney). Astute Alaskans have seen the ads on social media and elsewhere imploring the Senator to support the jobs-killing PRO Act, to back drastic climate change legislation and to even support court-packing. Let’s hope the Senator remembers that Alaskans elected her to stand up to radical, job- and economy-killing legislation. Alaska’s bright energy future quite literally hangs in the balance. Rick Whitbeck is the Alaska State Director of Power The Future, a national nonprofit organization that advocates for American energy jobs. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @PTFAlaska.

GUEST COMMENTARY: Big Tech censoring ‘misinformation’ does more harm than good

Labeling misinformation online is doing more harm than good. The possibility that COVID-19 came from a lab accident is just the latest example. Social media companies tried to suppress any discussion of it for months. But why? There’s no strong evidence against it, and evidence for other theories is still inconclusive. Pathogens have escaped from labs many times, and people have died as a result. Social media fact-checkers don’t have any special knowledge or ability to sort fact from misinformation. What they have is extraordinary power to shape what people believe. And stifling ideas can backfire if it leads people to believe there’s a “real story” that is being suppressed. Misinformation is dangerous. It can keep people from getting lifesaving medical treatments, including vaccines. But flagging it doesn’t necessarily solve the problem. It’s much better to provide additional information than to censor information. Part of the problem is that people think they know misinformation when they see it. And those most confident of their ability to spot it may be least aware of their own biases. That includes the fact-checking industry within the mainstream media, who were caught removing earlier posts on the lab leak theory, as well as social media “fact checkers” who aren’t accountable to the public. Earlier this year, I interviewed physician and medical podcaster Roger Seheult who said that he was censored by YouTube for discussing the clinical trials of hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin as potential COVID-19 treatments. No wonder so many people still believe these are the cures “they” don’t want you to know about. Much better would be an open discussion of the clinical trial process, which could help people understand why scientists think those drugs are unlikely to help. Even without the power of censorship, social media culture encourages the facile labeling of ideas and people as a way of dismissing them — it’s easy to call people deniers or as anti-science because they question prevailing wisdom. Of course, there are ideas that are very unlikely to be true. These generally involve elaborate conspiracies or a complete overhaul in our understanding of the universe. Or, like cold fusion and the vaccine-autism theory, they’ve been tested and debunked multiple times by independent investigators. I discussed the new interest in the lab leak with another science journalist who was interested in why so many reporters are still treating the natural spillover hypothesis as the only possibility. We agreed this isn’t like the connection between carbon emissions and climate change, where there’s a scientific consensus based on years of research and multiple, independently-derived lines of evidence. Here, even if a few scientists favored the natural spillover early on, the question is still open. Last year, some scientists rightly objected that accusing any lab of causing a worldwide pandemic is a serious charge and one shouldn’t be made on the basis of proximity alone. That doesn’t mean we should ignore the possibility, or assume that some other equally unproven idea is right. In the face of an unknown, why would the fact-checking people deem one guess to be a form of misinformation, and another guess to be true? And the lab leak idea got conflated in some people’s minds with conspiracy theories that the virus was deliberately created and released for population control or some other nefarious agenda. But a lab leak could have involved a perfectly natural virus that a scientist collected, or virus that was altered in some well-intentioned attempt to understand it. Writing in his blog, journalist and Bloomberg contributor Matthew Yglesias calls it a media fiasco. “(T)he mainstream press … got way over their skis in terms of discourse-policing.” He admits he Tweeted his disapproval of a thoughtful, well-written New York Magazine piece that helped revive the lab leak debate last January. The author — novelist Nicholson Baker — didn’t claim any smoking gun, but made a convincing case that the issue was still open. A Medium piece by former Times writer Nicholas Wade added little to what Baker said, but came at a time when the pubic was ready to reconsider. A recent Vanity Fair account details how the issue was suppressed inside the U.S. government. Looking back, there really wasn’t that much new news to report. Very little new evidence has been uncovered over the last year. The pandemic’s origin is still unknown. The fiasco was the media’s propagation of the lie that the issue was settled and that anyone questioning it might be deemed an idiot or conspiracy theorist. And maybe the intentions of the Facebook fact checkers were good. If there was magical way to identify misinformation, then social media platforms could do more to refrain from spreading it. Suppressing ideas they don’t like isn’t the way. Yesterday I had a long talk with someone who volunteers at a girls’ school in India, and she said she’d been in contact with some students who expressed fear of COVID-19 vaccines, even though their neighborhood has been ravaged by the pandemic. When she gave them additional information, about relatively greater danger of the disease, they chose to get vaccinated. What helped was not taking away information but giving people additional information. Censoring information — or what one deems “misinformation” — isn’t as helpful as it seems. The best we can do is keep questioning, and give people the most complete story we can. Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and host of the podcast “Follow the Science.” She has written for the Economist, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Psychology Today, Science and other publications.


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