Empire editorial: Juneau faces hardship despite chance for relief

Posted: Sunday, May 18, 2008

Even if but at a piece at a time and in amounts far less than this summer's electric bills stand to be, Juneau residents and the rest of the state are getting some financial relief from the state government.

Gov. Sarah Palin's announcement Thursday that she is proposing a $1.2 billion, 12-month energy relief package was welcome news, especially to Juneau residents who for the past month have wondered just how they're going to manage power bills that will increase by 447 percent.

Palin's plan calls for grants to utility companies to help lower consumers' power bills as well as energy debit cards that would go to all Alaska Permanent Fund dividend recipients. The debit cards would be good for $100 per month for one year.

In outlining her plan, Palin said, "Government's treasury is swelling while family checkbooks seem to be evaporating. It's not right while the state sees money pile up in Juneau, the people of the state pay higher and higher costs to use energy sources that they own."

Palin's right. As the state benefits from oil prices that are at record highs, it only seems fair that those bearing the financial brunt of runaway energy costs share in the state's windfall. With oil above the $120 per-barrel mark, the state is reaping a financial harvest like never before. That same price per barrel, however, means Alaskans are paying some of the highest energy costs in the United States - particularly residents of the state's more rural areas.

It should be noted, however, that although the governor's plan will reduce many families' energy costs by about 60 percent, the benefit will be far less in Juneau because savings on electric bills will apply to base rates and not on the much higher cost of power adjustment we'll all pay for this three-month period.

The news got somewhat better last week when the governor asked the Small Business Administration to declare Juneau's energy situation an economic injury disaster. On Friday, the SBA approved up to $1.5 million in loans at a rate of 4 percent to be used to pay fixed debts, payroll, accounts payable and other bills that can't be paid because of the disaster.

Palin's plan to help all Alaskans for the next 12 months - she's hoping to get her relief package up and running by September - is a good start but it may not be enough to provide real relief for those families and small businesses that have lived dangerously close to the edge long before now. That's especially true in Juneau, where monthly power bills for a three-month period beginning April 16 will soar by hundreds of dollars for families and thousands of dollars for businesses. For larger businesses, electric bills will easily climb by tens of thousands of dollars.

Here in Juneau, there's still some unfinished business with Palin and her reluctance - her refusal, actually - to make a declaration of disaster following the avalanches that toppled power-transmission towers at the Snettisham hydroelectric plant last month.

The governor has once declined to declare this financial crisis a "disaster," and she appears equally unwilling to do so as Juneau's legislative delegation has asked her to do based on two other state bailouts in the past decade.

And if the energy crunch weren't enough, Palin suggested on Thursday that a special legislative session set to begin in two weeks might best be held outside of Juneau lest the capital somehow be burdened by having legislators in town.

If anything, now's the perfect time for us to have the Legislature in town for two reasons: Our business community can use every bit of stimulation it can muster, and having lawmakers in town gives another chance to demonstrate to one and all how well we're coping with these dire circumstances not of our making.

While we're at it, we'd also like to appeal to the governor to take time from the special session to tour the Snettisham site and spend some one-on-one time with officials from Alaska Electric Light & Power Co. and city officials who can, perhaps, help her better understand this isn't any small or temporary hardship.

In the meantime, we'll await the outcome of our legislators' request for the governor to revisit her "no disaster" call.

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