Alaska editorial: Alaskans should have chance to participate in oil tax deliberations

Posted: Thursday, March 16, 2006

This editorial appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

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The scene Friday afternoon on Gavel to Gavel Alaska, the public service programming that shows the activities of the Alaska Legislature, wasn't good. The image of House Resources Committee members reclining, stretched out with arms behind the head, just waiting - for half an hour or so - for more Alaskans to talk to them about the governor's oil tax overhaul was the wrong image for such an important issue.

This was the opportunity for the public to comment, after all, on an issue that will affect how much money the state receives from the oil industry annually. And, with oil revenue the source of nearly all of the state budget's general fund money, that means this is an issue that affects all Alaskans - communities, school districts, individuals who rely on state aid, and so on.

So where was the public for this Friday meeting, which began at 12:30 p.m. and was teleconferenced statewide? Only 12 people had something to say. Was it because the meeting was in the middle of a work day, when people are occupied with their jobs?

Or did the poor showing have something to do with the fact that the Legislative Information Offices apparently didn't know until Thursday that public testimony would be taken on Friday? The LIOs are one of the main mechanisms for public interaction with the Legislature, and they work to alert the public to opportunities to comment on bills and resolutions. The manager of the Fairbanks LIO didn't know of the Friday public testimony period until the Daily News-Miner inquired on Thursday, following up on word one of its reporters had received from the committee.

Even if the LIO had received word on Thursday, how is one day's notice sufficient? And where was the statewide news release from the House Resources Committee alerting the public that Friday would be a chance to speak?

It's possible, however, that the skimpy level of public comment on Friday occurred because the public doesn't understand the governor's proposal and is intimidated by its complexity. If that's the case, that should concern legislators, who have the task of not only communicating adequately with Alaskans about opportunities to comment but also helping to educate them, especially on a matter that fundamentally alters a major part of the state's revenue stream and that could do so for decades to come.

Responsibility does lie in part with the public. If Alaskans don't understand the governor's proposal, if they have concerns about how it will work, they need to invest the time to learn what they can, to ask for extra opportunities to speak, and to speak up when those opportunities are made available.

The House and Senate committees handling the governor's proposal, meanwhile, must provide ample opportunities for public comment and ample notice of those comment periods. Committees should hold their public comment periods at a variety of times and days - that means afternoons, evenings and weekends - to entice the greatest involvement. At the same time, however, they need to guard against unduly slowing the legislative process.

The stakes are too great for this issue to advance without an informed public - or, at least, a public that has been given every opportunity to become involved. If the public rejects those opportunities, it does so at its own risk.

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