Voters to decide on 2 initiatives Tuesday

Posted: Friday, November 03, 2006

ANCHORAGE - Jay Ramras, a Fairbanks legislator and hotelier, says the Legislature should be run more like a business.

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Step one: Put more value on the time spent legislating.

"I'm just disgusted by the waste," said Ramras, a Republican. "I think there are too many frivolous bills and resolutions that come up."

Ramras, Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, and Sen. Gretchen Guess, D-Anchorage, believe that can be fixed by shortening the length of time the Alaska Legislature meets each year from 121 days to 90 days.

Unable to push a bill through the Legislature, the three are taking the question to voters as a ballot initiative in Tuesday's election.

Both propositions on the Alaska ballot this year are sponsored by lawmakers and began life as bills that died in the Legislature. Besides the 90-day initiative, the other would tax the leaseholders of North Slope natural gas reserves $1 billion annually until a pipeline is built.

That proposition, sponsored by Democratic Reps. Eric Croft, Harry Crawford and David Guttenberg, has generated the most attention of the two this campaign season. The oil industry and specially created groups have spent millions on television, radio and newspaper ads fighting it. That proposal has been fodder for hours of talk radio, reams of editorials and the subject of hearings by the Alaska Public Offices Commission.

Lost in the shuffle is the 90-day session. At face value, the idea is that a shorter session will make for more efficient government. The two major-party candidates for governor support it. But legislators themselves are split.

Opponents of the proposition, both Republican and Democrat, say the shorter session will create a lot of problems.

The public will have less input on important bills, and special interest groups and the governor will gain more power over the Legislature, they say.

"To give people less information is going to lead to a dumber legislature," said Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage.

Plus, it would probably result in more time in special sessions and interim committee hearings, opponents say.

That should worry residents of Juneau, said Sen. Con Bunde, R-Anchorage. Those interim hearings could be held in different parts of the state, which could be a toe in the door toward moving the Legislature or the capital out of Juneau, he said.

Ramras dismisses many of the concerns but points out the 90-day session would not take effect until 2008. That means the Legislature will have a full session to make adjustments to its rules and procedures to make it work, he said.

That can be done without sacrificing public input, he said. It is a matter of streamlining the legislative process. Fewer committees and fewer hands touching the bills would quicken the pace, he said.

But if the initiative turns out to be fatally flawed, the Legislature can repeal the initiative after two years.

"If it doesn't work, I think we should get rid of it," Ramras said.

The other ballot measure would set a 3-cent tax on every 1,000 cubic feet of proven natural gas reserves in Prudhoe Bay and Point Thomson that the leaseholders - the North Slope oil and gas producers - don't extract and ship to market. That is estimated to amount to about $1 billion a year

When a pipeline is built, the tax would be repealed and a portion of the money collected from the oil companies would be refunded through credits.

Croft and Crawford say this proposal is a needed incentive to get the North Slope oil producers to commit to a pipeline. In fact, Crawford says, it was the threat of the tax that prompted BP PLC, ConocoPhillips and Exxon Mobil Corp. to start serious negotiations with Gov. Frank Murkowski for fiscal terms to build the $25 billion pipeline.

Opponents, the three oil companies foremost among them, say the tax would add another 50 percent to the cost of the pipeline project, and oil industry representatives believe it will discourage further exploration.

But the cost of the tax would be only to those companies who hold the leases to the gas reserves. If another company or a consortium built the pipeline, it would pay none of the tax, so there is no increase in the pipeline's cost, supporters say.

Like the 90-day session initiative, the Legislature could amend the reserves tax if voters pass it, or repeal it after two years.

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