Energy rebates fail in Legislature

Posted: Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Multiple attempts to share Alaska's sudden oil wealth with citizens suffering from high gas, fuel oil and electricity prices were made by lawmakers during the legislative session that ended Sunday, but nearly all direct efforts faltered on concerns about fairness and sustainability.

Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

Legislators instead provided funding for a small amount of energy assistance for the most needy Alaskans, a big weatherization program available to all and future renewable energy grants.

Rep. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, helped stop one bill in the House Finance Committee that would have given every Alaskan an extra $500 on their Alaska Permanent Fund dividend, saying he wanted to avoid the creation of new entitlement programs.

It was one of the top issues for drawing constituent comments, he said.

"Some people really wanted it. Some people said, 'Please don't start another government handout,'" he said.

Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, has many constituents struggling with heating bills, but has similar concerns as Meyer.

If the state gives out money this year, "they're going to expect it next year," he said.

He backed a bill to create a renewable energy fund to help rural communities get off expensive diesel.

The bill to do that was co-sponsored by Rep. Bill Thomas Jr., R-Haines, who had better luck with it than with his proposal for the extra $500 dividend.

"We are doing many good things this session to address the cost of energy, and this bill leads the pack," he said.

Gov. Sarah Palin, however, said she had wanted a way to share with the public directly.

"I would have hoped we could have spent a lot less, and transferred some of the money that is being spent right into the hands of hard working Alaskans to help relieve that cost of rising energy. So there is some disappointment there," Palin said.

Some lawmakers agreed, but weren't in a position to help.

Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, a member of the Senate Republican Minority, said his bill to help citizens with money provided through their power bills failed to get a hearing in the Senate Finance Committee.

Wagoner said when he asked about it late in the session he was told winter was over.

"That's a rather callous statement to make," he said.

The renewable energy fund was co-sponsored by House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez, who said energy cost was no longer simply a rural issue.

Members of the Juneau delegation all supported the renewable energy fund.

It is expected to reach $250 million, with $50 million a year contributed over the next five years.

The Alaska Energy Authority would administer the fund through grants for renewable energy projects, and then submit the grants to the Legislature for funding as part of the capital budget process.

Also in the budget this year was $10 million for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, matching federal dollars.

Meyer said it was impossible to get enough legislators to agree on an energy rebate plan for it to win approval. Some felt rebates should go to everyone to be fair, but others were concerned that would balloon the cost so much it wouldn't pass.

"No matter what you do, somebody isn't going to be happy," he said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgeyat 523-2250 or e-mail patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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