Like ravens, oil lobbyists are picking apart Palin's legislation

Posted: Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The first time I had the opportunity to watch a group of ravens pillage a new bag of groceries out of the back of a pickup, I was awestruck. The quickness and precision of the assault, completed before the unsuspecting owner figured out what had happened, was amazing.

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That experience pales in comparison to watching the oil industry lobbyists pick over Gov. Sarah Palin's oil tax rewrite bill that is being debated by the Alaska Legislature.

Like the raven, the oil lobbyist is intelligent, clever and cunning. Both have learned to adapt to differing situations with an ease that is, at times, alarming.

I witnessed the evolution of the first Petroleum Profits Tax, in which oil industry lobbyists acted much like their winged brethren at lunch in an uncovered trash can. It was a grand feast without inhibition or restraint, a virtual feeding frenzy with large numbers participating in the orgy of self-interest.

This special session, however, called for by Gov. Palin in part because of the corruption that tainted the original bill, has made these ever-adaptive lobbyists use alternative means to achieve their desired goal, which remains the same - to give up as little as possible to the state, while keeping their master's profits as high as possible.

Just as the raven has to use a different plan of attack on an unguarded garbage can than on a fresh grocery bag in a pickup, the equally clever oil lobbyist has to adapt to the changing environment he finds himself in.

First of all, after three trials of former colleagues and with the FBI's public corruption investigation still ongoing, state legislators are less likely to be seen with the perceived robbers, at least in daylight. It helps, too, for the industry lobbyist to find a committee whose members are sympathetic to their cause.

Enter the powerful House Finance Committee, the bill's final stop before heading for consideration by the full House. With "well-oiled" members like Co-Chairman Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, and Co-Chairman Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, as well as Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, lobbyists know they will find a receptive ear for industry-friendly changes in the legislation.

The lobbyist must then be willing to meet with utmost discretion, and usually a legislator's staff person or two, behind closed office doors or, perhaps, even away from the Capitol altogether. Keeping the meetings out of the public eye is best, considering the circumstances. So stealth serves both the raven and the oil industry lobbyist.

But both also use other means at their disposal. The raven is an extremely vocal bird, and uses a wide repertoire of vocalizations to achieve its desired goals. Oil lobbyists employ similar, though more sharplyhoned skills.

Nobody squawks longer, louder or more often than the oil industry. The vast array of verbal weapons in the arsenal of industry vocalizers is staggering.

They use television, radio, print, e-mail, telephone, live presentations, letters and public testimony to achieve their desired ends. These are virtual love songs to the ears of supportive legislators. And if a legislator sings the same song back, it could mean the beginning of a lifelong partnership.

The clock is ticking, and the special session is winding down. Outside the walls of the Capitol, ravens ride updrafts through the brick and concrete canyons of downtown Juneau. On the streets below, Alaskans go about their business, perhaps only vaguely aware of what is unfolding in the halls of their government and the key questions that remain unanswered inside.

When we finally get a look at the governor's bill at the end of the committee process, what will be left? Will the lobbyists and their legislative cohorts have left it as depleted as the bag of raven-raided groceries in the bed of the unattended pickup? Or will the driver of the truck return to shoo off the robbers and save the goods for the people of the state?

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

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