More state lawmakers are asking how an Oregon public relations firm landed a $3 million deal to push for the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
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The appropriation to Pac/West Communications was put into the state supplemental budget on the House floor Monday without a committee hearing and without going through a competitive bid process. Another $750,000 was appropriated to Arctic Power, which has been the state's ANWR lobbyist since 1992.
The money isn't going to either group yet.
The Senate on Thursday voted down the House's changes to the supplemental budget. Some senators voted against other changes in the bill, such as the insertion of additional rural energy assistance money, but others cited the ANWR appropriation as the reason for their no vote.
Sen. Gretchen Guess, D-Anchorage, said she could see no proof Pac/West has the experience necessary for a targeted national campaign to sway opinion on opening ANWR.
She questioned why a request for proposals was not issued or a list of criteria not drawn up "to get the best national firm with the best chance for opening ANWR."
Senate Majority Leader Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said the Republican caucus needed more information about Pac/West. Asked if he had other problems with the House's changes to the supplemental budget, he said no.
"That's the big issue we're concerned about right now," Stevens said. "I think it's good to just take the time and make sure it's the right organization to give money to."
But there may be division within the Senate Republican leadership. Senate President Ben Stevens, R-Anchorage, said he supports the appropriation and Pac/West, and there is no need to issue a request for proposals for the project.
"Look, it's a strategy to try and convince votes and to help change public opinion," he said. "It's obviously a strategic maneuver at the national level, so why would we put it out to an RFP and tell the opposition what we want to do?"
Ben Stevens' father, U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, just the week before had told the Legislature the annual fight in Congress had a greater sense of urgency this year. If it fails again, the ANWR lobby may lose the support of the oil companies, he said.
That's why Pac/West was chosen, said House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez. The public relations firm has shown it cares about Alaskan issues and that it's been effective, he said.
"When Sen. Stevens was here, he said we have to do this immediately," Harris said. "There are only two groups out there that I'm aware of that could do that, that have shown their presence and interest in doing that. One is Arctic Power, which we've been using for some period of time. The other is Pac/West."
Pac/West has been involved in Alaska politics, particularly ballot initiatives, in recent years. The company is working with the NorthWest Cruise Ship Association to defeat a ballot initiative this year for a $50-per-passenger cruise ship tax. And in 2004, the company campaigned against an Alaska ballot initiative to ban bearbaiting in the state.
If it wasn't for the immediate need, Harris said, the contract probably would have gone to bid. But sole-source contracts such as this can be done, and are often done, if they are in the interest of the state, Harris said.
There are an estimated 10 billion barrels of oil beneath the tundra east of Prudhoe Bay. Opening ANWR to drilling is strongly supported in Alaska, with as much as 80 percent of the state's treasury dependent on oil taxes and royalties.
Pac/West plans to use the $3 million to wage public relations campaigns within the districts of certain congressmen who have voted against ANWR in the past. The company would first identify congressional districts to target, then structure a campaign around the idea that ANWR would ease the nation's dependence on foreign sources of energy.
In an interview with The Associated Press this week, Pac/West President Paul Phillips said his company began speaking more than a year ago with Alaska's congressional delegation and the governor's Washington, D.C., office about an ANWR campaign.
"We've been in the mix for over a year, but has it been public? No, because the timing hasn't been right," Phillips said.
The Senate voted 2-18 Thursday against the House's changes to the supplemental budget. Ben Stevens appointed a conference committee with Republican Sens. Gary Wilken of Fairbanks and Lyda Green of Wasilla, along with Democratic Sen. Lyman Hoffman of Bethel.
Once the House appoints a conference committee, the two sides will meet to work out a final supplemental spending bill.