Alaska editorial: Special session should undo corrupt oil vote

Posted: Friday, July 20, 2007

No date is yet set for this fall's special session to revisit the petroleum production tax voted into law in 2006.

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Gov. Sarah Palin should set one, soon.

Honest debate continues over the merits of a tax regime that has increased Alaska revenue but not to the extent forecast.

The key word here isn't debate. The key word is honest.

Much of Alaska's current corruption scandal has focused on just how lawmakers were pressured to vote and argue for or against the tax. Any process tainted by indictments for bribery and extortion - including FBI tapes that the accused would be ashamed to play for their mothers - can't be allowed to stand.

There's too much talk that the fix was in, too much suspicion that votes were bought, too much evidence that the new tax was less the work of hard-headed public service and more the result of corruption.

Alaskans have no faith in the tax. Alaskans would be fools if they did.

Lawmakers need to do two things in the special session:

• Consider oil taxes in an absolutely straightforward, open manner. Debate fiercely, freely and right out in front of God and everybody.

• Reconsider, based on numbers and modeling currently under way at the Department of Revenue, both how and how much Alaska should tax production.

To the extent possible, keep it simple. Make sure Alaska gets its fair share without the need for more lawyers and auditors.

Lawmakers must make clear to Alaskans that they're making their decisions based on what's best for Alaska - to the state's satisfaction, not the oil industry's.

That wasn't the case in 2006.

Near the end of the 2006 regular session oil-tax debate, lobbyists crowded the hall outside the House chamber. The House speaker took a telephone call, then presided over a move to rescind an amendment the oil industry didn't like. That prompted an angry declaration from then-minority leader Ethan Berkowitz.

"This is our floor," he said, appalled that lobbyists could reach right into the House chambers and attempt to reverse a vote. Berkowitz might well have said this is the people's House; this is where the people's representatives conduct the people's business. Lobbyists have no business butting in there. Alaskans shouldn't have to wonder if notes passed from the gallery or phone calls to the floor are calling the tune for their lawmakers and the state's future.

Palin has said we'll have a fall session if the Department of Revenue can get its number-crunching comparisons, analysis and recommendations done in time. Pat Galvin, revenue commissioner, said last week that's still a work in progress with no deadline, but marching orders of "the sooner the better."

Progress should be swift and steady. Then the governor should set a date for the session. And lawmakers should make sure the session is clean, open and honest.

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