Alaska editorial: Options for legislators in the special session

Posted: Thursday, July 13, 2006

This editorial appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

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Alaskans are seeing their senators and representatives saddled with some difficult choices on whether to move ahead with the proposed North Slope natural gas pipeline. Who would have thought that a project brimming with optimism, and that continues to bring optimism, could bring so many sour faces.

But it has.

Gov. Frank Murkowski has decided to call legislators back down to Juneau on Wednesday to resume their work on legislation on both the gas line and the related changes to the state's oil taxation system. Legislators - not all of them, mind you - aren't happy because they have re-election campaigns to run. Several face challenges from within their own party, meaning that time in the district is precious with the Aug. 22 primary election closing in.

Why the push now? Perhaps because the governor has his own primary campaign to worry about. He isn't in the best of positions in the polls, and he needs a win with the gas line. It's easier to sell yourself to voters if you can say you've convinced the goose to begin laying those golden eggs.

So as legislators meet in Juneau again, here are some of the options available to them as they wait for the gavel to sound out in the Senate and the House:

1. Do as the governor is asking and approve the oil and gas bills on his time schedule, which is a tight one. He's eager to have the gas line agreement sewn up, legislative approval and all, this year.

2. Go at their own pace, maybe taking even the full 30-day maximum that a special session can run and come back for another one if necessary. They'd have to disregard their own political intuition and forget about the urge to campaign for the primary and possibly the general election. This one probably shouldn't even be on the list, however, since the urge to campaign has got to be as strong as the inner signal that sets geese to migrate south.

3. Begin work on Wednesday and go home right away, essentially telling the governor, "Sorry, pal, we're not coming back until after the primary and we'll stay for one 30-day session, do what we can, and that's all. Then we've got to campaign for the Nov. 7 general election."

4. Pass the oil tax legislation in the next special session but forget about the whole gas line legislation and the draft agreement, which together have several time-consuming steps remaining. They could leave the gas line matter until next year, in a way leaving the direction to voters since the vote for governor could be a vote on the gas agreement itself.

The choices are mostly grim for anyone hoping that the oil and gas tax bills can be resolved free of the heat of the fall campaigns.

Even so, legislators would be passing up a good opportunity if they failed to at least approve the much-needed revisions to the oil tax system, which in its current form means the state is losing out on millions and millions of dollars each year. Legislators have worked long and hard on this topic, and while the House and Senate remain at odds over the numbers, they agree on the concept and have moved closer to a solution. To give up now, even though difficult maneuvering between the chambers remains, would be too costly for Alaska.

And what about the drive to approve the gas pipeline legislation and, ultimately, the gas contract itself this year? Legislators should not rush. If they - and the Alaskans they represent - believe the Legislature can get the work done this year and that the agreement with Exxon Mobil, BP and ConocoPhillips is in the long-term best interest of the state, fine. But if they can't, because individual members need to focus on their own political campaigns or because they need more information, then Alaskans should support that outcome even while continuing to press for the coveted pipeline.

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