My turn: House Judiciary report based solely on Ramras' intuition

Posted: Thursday, February 12, 2009

Last year, then-House Speaker John Harris, tasked the House Judiciary Committee with investigating the retail prices of gasoline in Alaska. He specifically requested information about why reductions in Alaska prices at the pumps significantly trailed reductions in gasoline prices nationwide. And he asked for solid recommendations for legislative action this year.

This sounds like a reasonable inquiry; I'm glad Speaker Harris requested it. Each time we fill up our tanks, most Alaskans wonder about why we pay so much. It's not clear why we pay prices significantly higher than those common in Portland, San Francisco or the Washington, D.C., area. Something sounds fishy.

After hearing about Harris' research assignment, I looked forward to a definitive report on this topic. A legislative investigation sounded like we'd finally have some carefully developed data and corresponding charts, graphs and narrative based on a systematic analysis of the problem. I expected a report based on measurable evidence, sound science, and an appropriate interpretation of the objective quantitative data. But that is not what the final report turned out to be.

When I heard the committee findings had been released, I immediately called Representative Ramras' office to request a copy. In doing so, I spoke with his chief of staff. She informed me that the 47-page document released that day was only a draft report and that the final version would be available later in the week. I asked if the draft would change substantively in its final version. She said no. Turns out a cover page and three addenda made the draft report complete. Something sounds fishy.

When I asked, I discovered that Ramras and his chief of staff, working together with no other input, wrote the committee report. Without even seeing the report, I was concerned immediately about the quality of the information, the data analysis and its conclusions. A committee report, written by one member and his staff person, does not sound like one that is objective, valid, reliable, unbiased or complete. And it is wrong for the finished committee product to be void of adequate debate about the testimony or consensus around the findings; all missing in this instance.

With regard to the methodology he employed, Ramras told an AP reporter that the report and its conclusions were the product of his intuition. Can this be true? Intuition is one's "instinctive knowledge" generated without the use of rational processes or formal reasoning. Under such conditions, data "analyzed" solely according to one's intuition is laughable.

A legislative investigation is, by definition, a thorough, systematic and empirical inquiry into a matter that can be the legitimate subject of legislation. Alaska legislation should not be based on someone's impression that something might be the case.

Alaskans want real answers. In this instance, we can't settle for Ramras' assessment of something that is based on his feelings or thoughts or long-standing opinions.

Because of the way Ramras crafted the Judiciary Committee Report, it does not appear that the legislators assigned to this committee had the opportunity to engage in a rigorous examination of the data, testimony, relevant legislation from Outside legislatures, or conclusions prior to the report's publication.

The scheduled testimony came largely from people associated with the refineries who said unchallenged that to stay competitive, our instate refineries have chosen to sell jet fuel on the international market cheaper than they can make it. To recoup that loss, these refineries charge Alaskans higher prices than they would normally be paying for their gasoline. This is what is really fishy ... and underhanded.

Former Speaker Harris specifically asked for a careful analysis of current gasoline pricing in Alaska as well as solid recommendations for future legislative action. Representative Ramras provided a committee report that does not answer Alaskans' questions and does not advance any understanding of how we might address this problem legislatively.

Alaskans are not "dim bulbs". We're smart and expect much better from our legislators. We know when things are fishy, underhanded and wrong. This so-called committee report is an example of all of that.

• Barbara Bachmeier is a writer who lives in Juneau.

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