This editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:
On a topic as important to Alaska as changing the way the state taxes the oil industry, the public needs to have confidence that any changes approved by the Legislature are indeed good for the state. And when those changes are tied to the prospects for construction of a natural gas pipeline from the North Slope, having confidence that those changes are in the best interest of the state becomes all the more important.
And what helps bring about that confidence? The opportunity to participate in the hearings of the legislative committees that are, and that will be, debating the new tax.
The public needs as many opportunities as possible, within reason, to comment intelligently on Gov. Frank Murkowski's proposed new oil tax structure.
The governor only presented his on Feb. 14, which makes it unlikely that Alaskans have had much time to digest the roughly 8,000 words.
The resources committees are in the midst of their series of separate hearings at which they are questioning administration personnel about the governor's proposal and at which they may hear from others, including representatives of Exxon Mobil, BP and ConocoPhillips, the state's three major oil companies and that are the principals involved in the gas line project.
Asking the public to comment on short notice and before the resources committees have even heard from all the players is not helpful. And taking comment in a joint meeting effectively cuts the number of opportunities in half; in the normal course of business in Juneau, the respective committee in each chamber provides its own opportunity for public input.
Again, more opportunity needs to be provided. The House and Senate Resources Committees should consider adding a weekday and evening public comment period, and the House and Senate Finance Committees should consider multiple opportunities when setting up their schedules for working on the governor's proposal upon receiving it from the resources committees.
A distinction can fairly be made, however, in the type of public testimony to be taken and the amount of time to be allotted. Two categories of people exist outside of those directly involved: Joe and Jane Alaskan, who may wish to have their moment on the issue to express general opposition or support, and highly informed parties such as independent experts on the oil industry and representatives of the Alaska Gasline Port Authority. It would be appropriate, therefore, to have two levels of public comment: The standard three to five minutes for Joe or Jane Alaskan and a longer period, by invitation only, for the more learned third-party experts. Legislative committees routinely hold hearings at which specific people are invited to testify.
Having ample opportunity for public comment will serve to further educate not only the public but also the 20 senators and 40 House members who will be called upon to judge the merits of the governor's proposal. The committees involved must provide more opportunity. It's the best way to ensure public confidence in the Legislature's eventual decision.