JUNEAU — A nonpartisan group that includes former lawmakers and labor leaders, formed to fight a proposed oil company merger in 1999, came together again Thursday to express support for the Alaska Senate’s bipartisan majority coalition, saying the alliance was key to standing strong against heavy oil industry influence in the state.
Leaders of Backbone lauded the Senate group of 10 Democrats and six Republicans who comprise the chamber’s voting majority, praising the group’s stand against Gov. Sean Parnell’s plan to cut oil production taxes.
Heading into this year’s elections, some Republicans, including Parnell and some legislative candidates, have expressed a desire to break up the coalition that rules the Senate amid a 10 Democrat, 10 Republican tie. Backbone argues that would be a mistake.
“Do we really want to expose our last line of defense against oil company influence to fall into the hands of those who are overly sympathetic to the oil industry, and where we lose any real check-and-balance of power?” asked David Gottstein, a founding member of the group.
“That is what is at stake in this election,” the Anchorage-based investment adviser said.
Backbone leaders say they don’t plan to register as an independent expenditure group or to endorse specific candidates, but rather they are seeking to inform Alaskans about the importance of this fall’s elections.
Sen. Johnny Ellis, who attended the news conference with other Democratic lawmakers, noted the endorsement of the coalition’s work by Backbone on Twitter, saying on the micro-blogging website, “Wow. I am honored & vindicated.”
State GOP chairman Randy Ruedrich, an opponent of the majority coalition, called a 10-10 Senate an “artifact of the past,” saying there are more Republicans than Democrats in the state.
While nonpartisan and undeclared voters make up the largest voting bloc in the state, Ruedrich said when voters go the polls, the vote about 60 percent for Republicans and 40 percent for Democrats.
“We expect to see folks running for the Senate this time who would like to serve Alaskans from the perspective of Republican principles, and that should lead to a significant increase in the number of Republicans in the Senate,” he said.
Gottstein said he expects Backbone will be cast as standing against Big Oil and jobs, a characterization that he said would be wrong. He said the group supports a fair tax structure, but “not one that places our state’s fiscal future at a higher risk than playing the crap tables in Las Vegas.”
Backbone prefers the “more prudent and studied” approach the coalition has taken on the issue, he said.
The coalition last year refused to follow the House’s lead in passing governor’s oil production tax bill.
The Senate alliance failed to reach consensus on a comprehensive tax package of its own earlier this year. A more limited plan passed the Senate at the end of the session but the House torpedoed it, as Parnell insisted on a more sweeping proposal.
The administration put forth such a plan during a special session but it was pulled by Parnell amid criticism from lawmakers in both parties and chambers.