The voters of Alaska made some bold choices on Aug. 22, some of which will have far-reaching effects in the Nov. 7 general election.
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Hindsight being the clearest sort of vision, quite a few people are saying that they knew all along that Gov. Frank Murkowski would end up losing, and further that he would lose to his chief Republican critic over the course of his administration, Sarah Palin. I don't know how to judge whether these pundits really knew everything so clearly before they went in, but I know I did not. While I had a feeling things might turn out the way they did on primary election day, I was surprised by the outcomes.
Palin has had some government experience as mayor of Wasilla, she's charismatic, outgoing and has a record in her two statewide elections that may arouse serious envy in other politicians. She's now in the process of mending fences and burying hatchets with other Republicans who supported John Binkley and Murkowski. I expect that her fate in November will depend directly on her success in this endeavor.
I am seriously considering Palin as my candidate for governor. I think she's intelligent, and I don't for a moment doubt her genuine desire to make Alaska a great place to live and work. She is, however, a good deal more socially conservative than I am, and I imagine this is true for many others who may be considering voting for her. She needs to try to bring voters of all stripes to her side, and to do so, she'll have to distinguish between personally held convictions and what statutes and policies she really wants to see implemented. I am content to support someone who holds different views than I, as long as that person is reasonable and willing to countenance opposing viewpoints, without surrendering to them.
Palin's Democratic opponent comes as no stranger to Alaska voters. He was mayor of Anchorage and then governor of Alaska for two terms. Tony Knowles is a politician's politician. He appears to be consumed by the desire for electoral office, and seems to be willing to do just about anything to achieve it. Whatever Murkowski's critics may say about him, he cannot be accused of the same willingness to sacrifice personal principles for electoral gain. What interests me most about Knowles' resurgent candidacy is the number of ardent Democrats who are unenthusiastic about him. Many were impressed by Eric Croft's campaign, and they seem to lack trust in Knowles. Whether this means they'll forego voting for him remains to be seen.
On November's ballot, voters will have a chance to provide a monetary incentive to the oil and gas industry to develop Alaska's natural gas reserves. The gas tax would be three cents for each 1,000 cubic feet of taxable gas under lease, and would be payable by the lessee. This tax would exempt certain forms of nonconventional gas, and would not go into effect until a lease had been in existence for 10 years. The taxation ballot measure further allows for a credit against total taxes owed if the gas is being brought to market.
Three Democrats in the state House got the gas tax ballot measure going, but I imagine it will receive support from a wide range of Alaskans. Murkowski spent a lot of time, energy and political capital over the past year trying to negotiate a contract with the major energy companies that currently hold leases for North Slope gas. This proved to be rather a thankless task, but it is one that will very likely become easier if the gas tax becomes law. It will strengthen the hand of anyone trying to work out a gas pipeline deal, because it will make it much more expensive to delay the start of the project. Critics of the tax will say that it will make the project uneconomical, but that argument has already been used to describe it under current conditions. The ballot measure has an escape clause that allows a lessee to surrender a lease to avoid having to pay the tax, and then the free market will determine the value of the gas, with the tax in place, as a new lease is negotiated. I think this is an idea whose time has come, and which stands to make the gas pipeline a reality rather sooner than later.
Benjamin Brown is a lifelong Alaskan, an actor, attorney and bartender.
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