My turn: Oil invests big in AK politics

Campaign contributions and consulting contracts don't guarantee loyalty, but do they influence?

Posted: Wednesday, March 22, 2006

After watching the legislative hearings on Gov. Murkowski's bill that would completely restructure our oil and gas taxing system, I am baffled by the fact that certain legislators are arguing that we must pass this as is, right now, without amendment, or risk scuttling the governor's gas pipeline deal. As the Legislature conducts an unprecedentedly aggressive schedule of hearings on this legislation, Rep. Norman Rokeberg, R-Anchorage, called the contention that the oil industry exercises undue influence over Alaska politics a "myth."

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Is it?

According to Alaska Public Offices Commission reports, the most prolific and consistent "investor" in Alaska politics is the oil industry, with the employees of VECO Corp. standing out as the single largest contributing block. Between 1998 and 2004, reports show that VECO employees and their family members contributed no less that $914,929.71 to Alaska political campaigns, with the following totals representing the amount of donations received from only the top seven VECO executives: Sen. John Cowdery, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, $24,550; Rep. Pete Kott, former Speaker of the House, $21,300; Rep. Rokeberg, chairman of House Rules Committee, $18,000; Rep. Vic Kohring, chairman of the House Oil & Gas Committee, $14,708.65; Gov. Frank Murkowski, $6,500 (not including donations to his U.S. senatorial races); Rep. Kevin Meyer, co-chairman of the House Finance Committee, $12,300; Rep. Mike Chenault, co-chairman of the House Finance Committee, $12,000; Rep. Lesil McGuire, chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee, $12,000; Sen. Con Bunde, chairman of the Senate Labor & Commerce Committee, $11,500; Sen. Lyda Green, co-chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee, $9,000; Rep. Mike Hawker, House Finance and Legislative Budget & Audit committees, $8,050; and Rep. Tom Anderson, House Labor & Commerce Committee, $8,000.

One should note that these totals do not include Senate President Ben Stevens' "consulting" contract with VECO, Rep. Kevin Meyer's salary and benefits from ConocoPhillips, the salary, retirement and stock options to the household of Rep. Mike Hawker from ConocoPhillips or his own contract with ASCG of NANA Regional Corp., which has contracts for oil field services with VECO and BP, while he was involved in confidential discussions on the gas pipeline contract.

This is not intended to pick on any particular legislator. Many Alaskans make their living off the oil industry and many individuals and organizations donate to political campaigns. But it does show how much VECO and the producers are willing to invest in our state government. Have these financial linkages and political investments afforded "undue influence" over Alaska's political players and process? Perhaps not, but certain actions might suggest otherwise.

Consistently, Rep. Kohring has voiced a patent refusal to move any legislation that might result in increased state revenue from the oil industry. Sen. Ben Stevens has already stated publicly that he supports the change in oil and gas tax as introduced, despite testimony from experts that it is filled with potentially disastrous flaws.

Most disconcerting though, is the fact that our governor, with the approval of his attorney general, former VECO attorney David Marquez, ignored all other competing gas pipeline proposals while negotiating a secret sole source "deal" with the producers. This is the same David Marquez who in 2002 testified on VECO's behalf that the Legislature should grant all the incentives and tax exemptions available under the Stranded Gas Act, without negotiation. He failed to convince the Legislature then, but it seems he has had more success with this governor.

So, how much would you be willing to invest to have government work on behalf of your business interests? A lot, I bet, if you could afford it. In fact, you might even be interested in contracting daily "editorial space" as VECO has, in the largest newspaper in the state to pooh-pooh the public concerns and vilify all others who suggest the state could do better on behalf of Alaskans.

This is a perfect opportunity for our legislators to take a strong stand on behalf of our future. Campaign contributions and consulting contracts don't guarantee loyalty, but do they influence? Of course they do. I urge you to watch closely the actions of the people elected to represent you while asking the question: Who or what is influencing their decisions?

If you aren't convinced they are loyal only to Alaskans and their oath to the Alaska Constitution, be prepared to replace them with someone who is.

• Lori Backes is the executive director for the All Alaska Alliance in Anchorage.

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