My Turn: Democrat priorities: revenue sharing, schools, fish, pipeline

Posted: Thursday, August 18, 2005

The song says "the times they are a'changing." They have in the past and will again. In our three years as elected Democrats we've often had a different vision for Alaska than our Republican colleagues who hold the governor's office and the Alaska Legislature's majority. You've heard us when we've disagreed with them, from the Legislature's recent approval of Gov. Murkowski's jet request, to a budget that spent millions on new wilderness roads when it would have more wisely gone to fix existing traffic problems and strengthen our schools.

But our priorities often miss the headlines. That's because the press most often reports on bills Republican leaders allow to be debated. In 2005, House or Senate floor discussion and votes were allowed on 185 Republican bills, but only on 11 Democratic bills. So we thought we'd share our vision with you here.

The political pendulum swings back and forth; the first Alaska State Senate had 18 Democrats and two Republicans. The next time it moves we're committed to a Legislature that promotes the best ideas, not just party member ideas. We are committed to:

• Sharing the state's wealth with local communities again. For 25 years the state shared revenue with local communities to help them pay for public safety, fuel and other crucial local services, and to help reduce the property tax burden on local taxpayers. Murkowski and the legislative majority ended municipal revenue sharing in 2003. As we warned then, it resulted in statewide local property tax increases and now threatens to dissolve many rural communities. Revenue sharing is important, is fair and will be restored when we are in the majority.

• Strong schools. Alaska is a wealthy state, and can have the best educational system in the United States. Our challenge is to convert our natural resource wealth into a talent pool of human capital. Lower class sizes and highly qualified teachers are proven methods that lead to higher test scores, lower dropout rates and greater prosperity for our next generation. Alaska Democrats pushed this year, as in the past, to reduce class sizes and improve our schools.

• Our rights to fish and hunt. We will protect Alaskans' rights to fish, hunt and use the outdoors, whether for subsistence, recreation or commercial fishing. We have deep concerns about a "mixing zone" proposal by Murkowski, which would allow polluting sediment to be drained by mines and other commercial projects into our salmon streams. These waters, and the rights or rural Alaskans who rely upon them, should always be zealously protected. Economic development is important, but should always be done carefully, in ways that strongly protect the waters and land used by Alaska's fish and game.

• A gas pipeline. A natural gas pipeline will do more to fuel our small and large local economies than any project on our horizon. The oil companies who hold our North Slope gas leases have resisted this project. It's time to fairly but firmly force their hand.

A 2004 study showed that when Alaska gas hits the Lower 48 market, it will reduce the price BP, Conoco and others receive for their other natural gas by roughly 20 percent. These companies have an incentive to delay development of Alaska's natural gas.

We care more about Alaska's interests than company incentives. The state has a right to take back gas leases from any company that won't sign a reasonable contract to sell gas into a pipeline. We must show we're willing to take back and re-bid leases from companies that won't supply a gas pipeline.

We believe any gas pipeline contract must require: 1) a firm, early construction date; 2) fair access for in-state gas use by our communities, and fair access by competitors of BP, Conoco and Exxon who want to develop and send gas through a pipeline; 3) maximum levels of Alaska hire; and, 4) maximum state revenue.

The pendulum will swing again. We'll keep working to write our ideas into legislation that passes, to fight legislation we feel harms our state, and to educate our colleagues and push them in the right direction. We'll work to share our vision today, and make it a reality tomorrow.

• Les Gara and Hollis French are Democratic legislators. They are both from Anchorage and were first elected in 2002.

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