Oil companies hoping to head off Gov. Sarah Palin's proposed tax increase may find that their best chance comes in the House Finance Committee, now considering the governor's Alaska's Clear and Equitable Share bill.
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That committee, frequently described as the "powerful" House Finance Committee, will craft the bill likely to get presented to the full Alaska Legislature on the floor next week.
Three of the committee's 11 members, including both co-chairmen, have ties to the oil industry. They are Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski; Rep. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage; and Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage. Despite some acknowledged connections to the industry, all three say they'll participate and vote on the issue.
House Democratic leaders say they won't be challenging those decisions either.
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Chairing the committee meetings during this special session of the Legislature is Chenault. His family owned a construction company that has worked for oil companies in the past, but Chenault said he has no financial conflict of interest now.
Since he's been a legislator, Chenault said his company has done "very little, if any," work for oil companies.
Chenault said no one in his majority Republican caucus had suggested he step down as chairman, though earlier House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez, said Chenault should explain his connections to the oil industry.
Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, leader of the minority Democrat caucus, said it appeared Chenault was in compliance with the Legislature's ethical standards.
"Unless there's a conflict, he chairs," she said. "That's our rules."
One legislator who won't be chairing the meeting is Meyer, typically co-chairman of the Finance Committee with Chenault.
Meyer works for ConocoPhillips, one of Alaska's big three oil producers, as a facilities support coordinator. He has acknowledged that presents at least an appearance of conflict of interest, and Chenault is chairing the meeting as a result.
Meyer said he was going above and beyond what was required, because he had no ownership interest in ConocoPhillips, and under the Legislature's rules, working there did not constitute a conflict of interest.
"By statutory definition, my employment does not present a conflict of interest," he said.
Meyer asked the Finance Committee to excuse him from participating in the committee process anyway.
Under the Legislature's rules, members are required to participate unless excused. If even one other member objects, they must participate despite the conflict.
In Meyer's case, Rep. Bill Thomas Jr., R-Haines, objected and Chairman Chenault told Meyer he was required to participate.
"I want to hear what he has to say," Thomas said. "I know very little about the oil industry, and he does."
A third committee member, Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, is married to a ConocoPhillips employee. That did not present him with a conflict of interest, he said.
"I, just like the governor, have a spouse employed in the oil and gas industry," Hawker said.
Palin's husband, Todd Palin, works for BP at Prudhoe Bay.
Chenault, Meyer and Hawker generally represent oil industry views, asking questions supporting industry opposition to tax increases.
Thursday, Meyer asked a petroleum geologist Dudley Platt what he acknowledged might be an unfair question.
"Is this raising taxes on the oil industry going to solve the problem of declining production?" Meyer asked. The oil industry has argued the state should put more emphasis on slowing the declining production rate instead of raising taxes.
You are right, Platt responded. "That is an unfair question."
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