My Turn: Will Legislature beef up oil tax?

Posted: Thursday, October 25, 2007

As work begins in earnest on the Petroleum Profits Tax revision, a few things have become painfully obvious. Denial is alive and well in certain segments of the Alaska Legislature. Couple that with a distinct lack of leadership and a crippling aversion to change, and Alaskans stand to be short-changed yet again.

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Even with all that has transpired over the course of the Murkowski years - from ethical lapses and the buying and trading of votes, to corruption indictments and convictions - legislative leadership just doesn't get it.

Don't blame the Palin administration on this round. Whatever your personal beliefs, at least the governor's team is trying to do something to remedy the broken tax scheme. Certainly, the administration's plan isn't perfect, and hopefully it is open to compromise. But the do-nothing approach of the old guard is just not going to cut it.

As an independent veteran observer of the original PPT war, I have to tell you that I saw this second showdown coming. The sitting legislators, when this scheme was being cooked up, reassured us that if there were problems in the future, we could revisit and fix them.

Problems arose almost immediately. But there was little willingness in the Legislature to address those initial causes for alarm.

Kenai Sen. Tom Wagoner, for example, attempted to plug the loophole that allowed BP to write off much of those unmaintained and corroded pipes that burst soon after PPT was passed. But greased by smooth talk and campaign contributions from industry, the same legislators who successfully blocked that fix are still here and are already balking at a more comprehensive fix.

Gone from the special session mix is former Gov. Frank Murkowski, architect of the current flawed plan. Also gone are a few legislators and VECO, the company at the vortex of the ongoing corruption scandal.

Remaining, however, is the shortfall in PPT's projected oil revenue to the state, and the continuing rise of oil prices and industry profits.

While some things have changed, others remain the same. Legislative leadership still mandates closed-door meetings,

Those in positions of legislative authority still refuse to admit that the PPT is not working as promised. Special interests, connected to big oil, still hold remarkable sway over the current majority leaders. And common citizens are vastly outnumbered by industry lobbyists in the legislative halls here in Juneau.

Recently, I was sitting in the back during a meeting of the Senate Resources Committee, listening and taking notes on the administration's plan for revisions to the oil tax laws. In my mind, even the make-up of the Resources Committee itself doesn't bode well for effective change for Alaskans.

The committee is chaired by Charlie Huggins, my senator from Mat-Su. We have talked many times about PPT over the last year and a half. Originally, Huggins supported Murkowski's 20/20 numbers as being just fine, or maybe even too burdensome a levy on industry.

Huggins was originally appointed to the Senate by Murkowski, as were committee members Bert Stedman of Sitka and Gary Stevens of Kodiak. Add to the mix Senate President Lyda Green, who has stated many times her belief that PPT doesn't need to be changed and that the original process was not tainted by corruption, and you have an instant majority on the seven-member committee panel with a predisposition toward the oil industry's version of the tax scheme.

The remaining members on the committee are Republicans Lesil McGuire of Anchorage and Tom Wagoner of Kenai. The lone Democrat is Anchorage's Bill Wielechowski.

So the PPT stew has been loaded with denial, seasoned heavily with scandal then watered down and placed on low heat for a month. So the big question now is, when it's done cooking, will Alaskans find any meat in it?

• Myrl Thompson is a Wasilla resident who's currently in Juneau.

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