Speaking of leadership

Posted: Monday, June 02, 2003

Alaska lawmakers have adjourned and gone home. But the lawmaking year won't end until July 1 when Gov. Frank Murkowski will have made his promised cut in state spending with line-item vetoes.

Some observers said before the session that the Republican-led Legislature would rubberstamp what the Republican governor proposes. Not so. The governor didn't get his gasoline tax increase, his visitor fee, or his seasonal sales tax.

What he did get was legislation offering tax incentives to oil companies to step up exploration and production. He campaigned to boost industrial development as a way to cover the state's fiscal gap. Lawmakers gave him the legislation.

The governor and many of the lawmakers who campaigned to cut the cost of government were elected in November. The lawmakers didn't do much budget cutting in their recent session. They passed only a half-dozen bills making minor cuts in state expenses. But they supported the governor when he merged state agencies to reduce cost.

Then lawmakers tossed the governor the hot potato - state spending cuts. He can make cuts by vetoing money for agencies, projects or programs before July 1. By the next legislative session the governor and the lawmakers will have heard what constituents want restored, if anything.

Rep. Bill Williams, a Saxman Republican and House Finance Committee vice chairman, said Murkowski's plan - cutting state spending and promoting oil development - has merit.

"He is a leader," Williams said of the governor. In the opinion of the 10-year Saxman lawmaker, "If we had that type of leadership in 1999, there wouldn't be a problem today."

Meanwhile, the state's two largest newspapers are advocating return of the state's individual income tax.

The Anchorage Daily News castigates the governor and Republican lawmakers, as it has since before its candidate, Fran Ulmer, lost the gubernatorial race. It believes it can verbally pound the income tax through the governor and Legislature by accusing them of having "a blatantly dishonest platform," and "blowing smoke" that "shows genuine contempt for Alaskans."

The newspaper dedicates more editorial space toward taxing individuals than in promoting development, such as opening the coastal plain of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or promoting the gas line to the Lower 48.

The Fairbanks News-Miner is more reasoned. It quotes the University of Alaska Anchorage's Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER). The institute claims massive state budget cuts will lead to widespread unemployment because one in three jobs in Alaska "can be traced to state spending." (ISER staff members are public employees.) The newspaper's editors favor the income tax, saying the governor misreads public opinion (the election results?) about a cut in state services.

The Anchorage Daily News concludes its latest blast at the governor's and Legislature's plan with, "It's a strategy that abdicates the duty to lead."

Hmmmm.

We remember when Alaskans wanted statehood almost as badly as they want ANWR opened or the gas line built. The publishers of Alaska's two largest newspapers, Robert B. Atwood of The Anchorage Times and C.W. "Bill" Snedden of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, actually lived in Washington, D.C., off and on for several years to lobby for statehood at their own expense.

They visited publishers around the country. Charles Gray, who later succeeded Snedden as News-Miner publisher, said, "We set up an editorial mill." The newspapers' editors wrote editorials in support of Alaska statehood that they sent to newspapers in districts where members of Congress were cool on statehood. When the local paper ran a pro-Alaska editorial, it was easier for the lawmaker to become an Alaska supporter.

That won't happen today. With chains owning five of the seven largest daily newspapers in Alaska, the publishers are hired staffers who lack the flexibility of owner-publishers. That is too bad. It cost Alaska leadership.

Statehood resulted from a strong bipartisan effort. A Democrat-controlled Legislature in 1949 approved financing an 11-member Alaska Statehood Committee. Gov. Ernest Gruening, a Democrat, appointed Republican Atwood as chairman of the committee. He also appointed another publisher, Democrat Bill Baker of the Ketchikan Chronicle. Later, Gov. Mike Stepovich, a Republican, appointed Republican Snedden to the committee.

When President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Alaska Statehood Act, Atwood was among six Alaskans, and the only private sector person, invited to the signing.

Ike recognized leadership.

Williams is retired publisher of the Ketchikan Daily News.



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