Alaska Editorial: Murkowski shouldn't sign contract without legislative approval

Posted: Thursday, July 20, 2006

This editorial appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

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A nother debate over the governor's proposed North Slope natural gas pipeline deal has become a distraction. But unlike many of the other issues, this one could easily be resolved.

And the guy to settle it is Gov. Frank Murkowski.

The debate centers around the fear that the governor might, could, possibly would sign a gas line contract with Conoco Phillips, BP and Exxon Mobil, even if the Legislature decides it doesn't like the deal. The Stranded Gas Development Act says the governor, after negotiating a fiscal deal with the companies for taxes and royalties, is supposed to submit the package to the Legislature for approval.

That's what the Stranded Gas Act says.

Were life that easy in politics.

The Legislature's legal staff says it "probably" is unconstitutional to require legislative approval of a contract negotiated by the executive branch of government. The lawyers say it would violate "the separation of powers doctrine of the state's constitution," which gives each branch of government certain roles and responsibilities, with no rights to step on each other's toes.

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Les Gara had requested the legal opinion, and the answer made him nervous. Would Gov. Murkowski, as he grows frustrated with the Legislature's reluctance to approve the gas line deal, just go ahead and sign it on his own, claiming that submitting it for legislative approval would violate the constitution?

Rep. Gara has asked the governor to promise he would never do any such thing. The governor and his staff have avoided a direct answer.

"As we have discussed before, the governor will continue to follow the laws and constitution of the State of Alaska," wrote Kevin Jardell, the governor's legislative director, in a June 30 letter to Rep. Gara. OK, so the governor will follow the law. We sure hope so. But the question was, will he promise not to sign a gas contract without legislative approval? The law may require such legislative consent, but maybe the constitution says the opposite.

The governor should put this silly argument to rest with assurances that he will follow the intent of the Stranded Gas Act and wait for legislative consent, even if a good constitutional lawyer might give him a way out.

This debate isn't anything new. When Gov. Tony Knowles introduced the original Stranded Gas Act in 1998, it did not include a provision for legislative approval. State Revenue Commissioner Wilson Condon testified at the first legislative committee hearing on the bill that although the governor strongly supported formal legislative approval of any gas line contract, he did not include it in the bill because such a requirement might violate the constitution.

Lawmakers said thanks for the opinion and then amended the bill to require their consent of any gas line contract. Regardless of any constitutional qualms, lawmakers had no intention of allowing any governor to cut a deal of such long-term importance to the state without their approval.

Putting aside the legal debates, the answers are clear: No way would any governor be politically foolish enough to try signing a contract that usurps the Legislature's taxing authority without the consent of lawmakers. The Legislature would sue and likely win. The governor may have the legal authority to sign contracts without legislative approval, but this is about a couple hundred billion dollars worth of natural gas - not pencils, an office space lease or even a small jet.

This debate will cease if Gov. Murkowski will just pledge not to sign a gas line contract without legislative consent.

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