With less than two weeks to go until this session's May 10 adjournment, the Capitol is abuzz with talk of retirement reform (along President Bush's effort to privatize social security), plans to rework workers' compensation benefits, and Sen. Ben Stevens' effort to tap permanent fund earnings for school construction projects.
But those bills, like most of this session's key legislation, are still wending their way through the process. As of Sunday night, the Alaska Legislature had passed 19 bills. It has also approved 20 resolutions, including one proclaiming 2005 "Rotary International Year."
Only two appropriation bills have made it through the legislative thicket. One, House Bill 32, appropriates $1.3 million in state money to Arctic Power, an agency whose mission is to get Congress to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil and gas development.
If this sounds familiar, it's because Arctic Power is one of the legislature's perennial favorites. Since Arctic Power's formation in 1992, the state has granted it $9.4 million, not including the latest appropriation.
In six years of tracking this I've been unable to extract documentation of how much Arctic Power raises elsewhere. Although the majority of its funding appears to come from the state, Arctic Power was established as an independent non-profit and is thus exempt from Alaska's Public Records Act, which ostensibly assures public access to most government documents. The few lawmakers who've questioned the dearth of budget information have been told any documents the organization releases could help the environmental extremist opposition.
In 2001, when I asked then-executive director Cam Toohey why the appropriation had to have an immediate effective date, he barked, "Did you see '60 Minutes' last week? The nation is screaming for energy and for ANWR. ... We have to put together a full-on education program for the next 60 to 90 days." That hardly explained why the $2 million grant, unlike most state appropriations, had a lapse date five years hence.
Fast forward to 2005. Arctic Power's been given several more multi-million-dollar chunks of state money. ANWR is not yet open. In February Arctic Power's co-chairwoman Gail Phillips gushed to the House Finance Committee that "the stars are aligned." All they need, of course, is another million-or-so state dollars, and fast.
It's hard to determine exactly who Arctic Power is lobbying - er, educating. In the past, the focus has been on the U.S. Senate, where approval to open ANWR has failed due to filibusters. But Arctic Power officials hinted this year that Sen. Ted Stevens doesn't want them nosing about in his turf, and has asked them to focus their efforts on the U.S. House of Representatives.
But the House has consistently voted to approve drilling in ANWR, and another Arctic Power board member told the Senate Finance Committee in January that 230 of 435 House members are "in strong support" of opening ANWR.
So what is Arctic Power really doing with our money?
If nothing else, they've provided some high-end jobs. According to former Democratic state senator Al Adams, now co-chairman of Arctic Power, the agency is paying its Washington, D.C., lobbyist Jerry Hood $10,000 monthly. Hood's assistant, former Republican staffer Stephanie Szymanski, earns $9,350 a month. In Anchorage, Arctic Power spends $31,000 monthly to maintain its office and three employees there, including Kevin Hand, a former Republican staffer now making $7,500 a month as the agency's executive director.
The sponsor of HB 32 is none other than Rep. Vic "back-to-basics" Kohring (R-Wasilla), a consummate advocate of the elimination of non-essential state services (such as, in his view, the Department of Environmental Conservation). In his defense, Kohring and his ilk view the Arctic Power grants as investments, with the potential to reap substantial ongoing financial rewards for the state. With more than 80 percent of the state's revenue coming from oil, it's hard to dismiss the role of our oil resources.
Maybe Kohring is right, and this new million-dollars-plus will help achieve what has long been a priority for the state. But it seems to me the oil industry is capable of doing its own lobbying if it believes it's warranted, and the state could better focus its resources on what Kohring calls core government functions - schools, roads, public safety. Sometimes I get the feeling Alaska's just a big company town, and we've been suckered again.
Juneau resident Rebecca Braun is co-editor of the Alaska Budget Report.