Lawmakers looking to consultants for gas line bill help

Committee wants to retain advisor of former Gov. Murkowski

Posted: Friday, April 27, 2007

Lawmakers have begun lining up consultants to analyze portions of Gov. Sarah Palin's gas line bill as the Legislature enters the home stretch of this year's session.

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The Legislative Budget and Audit committee hired Washington D.C. law firm Saul Ewing LLP to assist with federal regulations, tax issues and the intricacies of calculating shipping rates.

The committee also is looking to retain Dan Dickinson, a consultant to former Gov. Frank Murkowski, who helped draft different versions of the production tax bill.

Rep. Ralph Samuels, R-Anchorage, assured the committee on Thursday that Dickinson brings no conflicts of interest to the Legislature.

"He has not been a lobbyist; I confirmed that before I did anything else," Samuels said. "He has not had a contract with any firm whatsoever."

Committee member Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, said he saw no problem with hiring Dickinson.

"I think he's got some good background; he would serve us well," Stedman said. "His relationship with the past administration doesn't bother me at all."

The committee still is looking to hire a few more consultants to help with Palin's Alaska Gasline Inducement Act, Samuels said. The committee still has two other firms under contract.

Meanwhile, Palin's bill is being heard in Senate finance committee. The House finance committee plans to begin hearings on Friday.

Samuels has been criticized for not bringing consultants into the fold sooner, especially with session scheduled to end May 16.

Last year the committee relied heavily on consultants when former Gov. Frank Murkowski negotiated with North Slope producers BP PLC, Exxon Mobil Corp. and ConocoPhillips.

The stakes are just as high this year, said Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, who believes consultants should have been on board when hearings began in mid-March.

"I would have had three or four people around here the last six weeks," Dyson said. "We are playing the world's biggest poker game. Not having access to the very best brains to inform us, to challenge us and push back is unwise."

This year is different, Samuels said, because the legislature was reviewing a contract proposal last year, not a bill that establishes criteria for a proposal to build the pipeline.

"Until you know what people want, it was difficult to hire," he said. "There is no use to hiring an economist if you are not talking about economic factors.

"You can hire a whole bunch of lawyers to come down here and tell you what to think, but until you have specific questions to ask them ... I think we are getting to that point now."

Additionally, Samuels said many consulting firms he has approached, including an industry renowned Cambridge Energy Resources Associates, often have conflicts of interests.

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