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ANCHORAGE - Gov. Frank Murkowski said the $23 billion Alaska Permanent Fund could be used to flex the state's political as well as its financial muscle.
Alaska could seek help from companies in the Lower 48 that are part of the permanent fund investment portfolio to lobby members of Congress to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Murkowski said at a press conference this week.
In his State of the State speech last month, the governor suggested the state should be more aggressive in leveraging the permanent fund by urging companies in its portfolio to bring jobs to Alaska.
The announcement prompted an immediate reaction from Democrats who said they feared the governor's proposal may violate prudent investment rules. This week's suggestion to link it to ANWR prompted a similar response.
"Each time (Murkowski) talks about the permanent fund he leaves us with more questions than he does answers," said House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, an Anchorage Democrat.
Murkowski prefaced his remarks on Monday by saying that he was not making an actual proposal.
"But I can certainly make a case for the reality that if we're looking for support from a senator in, well let's say Illinois - (Sen. Peter) Fitzgerald is an example - on an ANWR vote, and we can justify that we put maybe $1.2 billion in Boeing stock and Boeing is now headquartered in Illinois ... that we could compliment Boeing on their management and indicate that we were voting our proxies for Boeing management. But we'd like to have the Boeing lobbyists help us out a little bit on ANWR. I don't think that is inappropriate," Murkowski said.
The permanent fund is among the 100 largest investment funds in the world and has paid out millions in dividend checks each year to eligible Alaskans. State law prohibits permanent-fund resources from being used to influence or finance political activities.
The governor's comments also have sparked debate among many in Alaska politics about whether it is appropriate for the fund to play a more active role in spurring development in the state.
Former Alaska Gov. Jay Hammond, a frequent permanent-fund commentator, said he is suspicious of any notion to change how it is used or to insert even the appearance of politics into fund.
And the idea Murkowski floated this week "opens the door to suggest that if a company somehow were to accommodate us they might get special treatment," Hammond said.
But former permanent-fund director Dave Rose sees merit in the idea and said he has asked corporations that the fund invests with to aid in the ANWR fight. Rose, who served as executive director from 1982 to 1992, said he talked to Murkowski about the idea during the gubernatorial campaign.
"In talking to (Murkowski) ... I said, we ought to try and resurrect this with some decent follow-through," he said.
Rose said he used the power of the permanent-fund investments to open corporate doors in other ways as well, such as in arranging a meeting with Dow Chemical Co. when the city of Wasilla was attempting to expand its runway.
Such actions do not allow politics to be a factor in how the fund is invested, Rose said. The investment decision would have been based on accepted standards of risk, he said.
The governor denied a request for an interview from the Anchorage Daily News to elaborate on his remarks. But press spokesman John Manly said the idea is an attempt to get the attention of members of Congress opposed to ANWR through their business constituents.
"I think he's serious about looking into how we can make that happen," Manly said.