My Turn: Give credit where credit is due

Posted: Thursday, August 03, 2006

Just this week, I returned from the beautiful Hawaiian Islands where there also is a race for governor. underway.

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Like here in the Great Land, where I live and make my home, Hawaii has a Republican governor, an incumbent who is seeking a second term in office. Linda Lingle is widely respected by Hawaiians of both political parties, and she is looking very likely to emerge triumphant in her race this fall. Her election was an unprecedented watershed event, the first woman ever to serve as chief elected official since the tragically overthrown Queen Lydia Liliuokalani more than 100 years ago. Lingle is also the first Republican governor since Hawaii's statehood, which is singular in a place as strongly tilted to the Democratic Party as is the 50th state.

Here in Alaska, we have an incumbent Republican governor also seeking re-election. Neither the first man nor the first Republican to govern Alaska, Frank Murkowski put in many years of admired service in the U.S. Senate, leaving that position to run for governor four years ago. Murkowski was generally perceived to be giving up an absolutely safe Senate seat to work to get the job of governor. Some questioned why he would do this, but he did not listen to them and went about winning a second statewide office by a comfortable margin. It is safe to say that he will have a much bigger job ahead of him in retaining his offices on the third floor of the Alaska Capitol.

Governing is about personality. Each governor leaves a stamp on the office. Murkowski is a forthright person who doesn't tend to spin things before, during, or after doing them. There have been some instances in his first term as governor in which this trait has resulted in an unfortunate loss of political capital. I don't have a problem with the governor of a state the size of Alaska having a jet instead of an antiquated propeller plane, but many of my fellow Alaskans did. The governor went ahead and got his jet and unnecessarily riled a few legislators and some of the electorate. I respect those who find the jet affair worthy of their harsh criticism, but I have to ask them if this is the defining action of the Murkowski administration. Clearly it is not.

Murkowski has supported timber, mining, tourism and other industries crucial to Alaskans' lives, in addition to the oil and gas industry. The previous governor certainly claimed to support the aforementioned industries, although I doubt you can find anyone seriously dependent on timber or mining activity that would give Tony Knowles credit for meaningful support. He is quite popular with the oil and gas industry, which provided a mainstay of his electoral support during his races for governor and also in his unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate. (I disclose that I served as his opponent Lisa Murkowski's research director in said Senate race, and her father appointed me to the State Council on the Arts.) Tony was warm to oil and gas when governor, and during those eight years, the taxation structure for petroleum development remained unchanged.

There is a vigorous debate underway right now about entirely revamping the way Alaska collects tax money from the oil industry. This debate began in earnest when Murkowski administratively ordered several North Slope activities to be accounted for in a way that yielded upwards of $150 million more to the state treasury annually. Knowles never did that, perhaps because he was never advised to restructure taxation or had a good reason not to do so. Its failure to happen has cost the state dearly in the ensuing years.

The other side of the hydrocarbon coin is the gas pipeline - so long awaited, with such promise for Alaska's future. Many of the same parties are at the table negotiating the gas pipeline deal and talking about petroleum profits. Murkowski showed no coziness to big oil in raising taxes, and indeed got both the taxation and gas pipeline conversations going.

While Murkowski's critics accuse him of not getting a good enough deal at either end of the table, I must observe that it is much closer to a concrete step forward than Knowles ever even attempted. If you look at the Knowles-for-governor Web site, in an appeal for campaign funds it reads:

"My campaign will focus on three key issues: Building a natural gas pipeline on our terms - putting Alaska jobs, businesses, in-state access to gas and our fair share first."

Knowles goes on to enumerate education support and the restoration of trust and integrity to the governor's office as Nos. 2 and 3. Wouldn't focusing on getting more money from petroleum profits help pay for education? Wouldn't it be more indicative of trust and integrity if petroleum taxes remained on the table until Alaskans are getting their fair share?

I don't dislike Knowles, but I cannot countenance him as governor again. While many may harp about Murkowski, I am thankful that he has taken the meta-debate about oil and gas, existing and new production, and the long-term possibilities for this crucial Alaska industry, even if he has thrown public relations to the wind. I think Murkowski deserves Alaskans' gratitude for making real, if incremental, progress on the most important issue of our day as Alaskans, even if one disagrees with the exact provisions of either the imposition of the petroleum profits tax or the gas pipeline deal. The debate that is now underway would perhaps not be taking place without his proposals.

• Benjamin Brown is a lifelong Alaskan, an actor, attorney and bartender.

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