State lawmakers hope to help with downside of high oil prices

Posted: Sunday, November 25, 2007

During a special session in which Alaska tried to profit from the increasing value of its oil, worries over the effect of those high prices for heating oil at times threatened to derail the deal.

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Rural representatives such as Rep. Bill Thomas Jr., R-Haines, and Rep. Mary Nelson, D-Bethel, fought losing efforts to include more money to help poorer rural residents cope with skyrocketing heating oil bills.

They hoped to increase funding for the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP.

Thomas and Nelson found some help from Anchorage and Juneau legislators, however, who are likely to boost the energy assistance program next regular session.

"It's not right for the state to be doing so well when we have Alaskans doing so poorly, because of these high energy prices," said Rep. Harry Crawford, D-Anchorage.

Nelson and Thomas, both members of the House Finance Committee, got that group to include $50 million for low-income energy assistance in Gov. Sarah Palin's Alaska's Clear and Equitable Share bill, but that money got cut out later in the process.

Thomas later pulled his support for ACES, saying the lack of energy-assistance funding was one of the reasons he couldn't vote for it.

"This is a vote against poor people in my district," he said.

Nelson persuaded the House Finance committee to include the funding, but it was cut out in the Senate Finance Committee, where Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, serves as co-chairman.

Hoffman added "intent language" to the bill, however, saying that one of the reasons the state needs the bill's additional revenue is to "assist with rising energy costs."

That, and the positions of prominent supporters such as Nelson, Thomas, Hoffman and Crawford on the Legislature's powerful finance committees is likely to mean the energy-assistance program will get more funding next session, Kerttula said.

Most of the need is in hard-pressed Bush communities, where the cost of fuel and transportation can drive heating oil prices several dollars a gallon above Juneau's high prices.

"The places that give us the oil can't afford to heat their homes," said Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau.

Rep. Andrea Doll, D-Juneau, is joining with Kerttula to support development of an energy strategy for the state. That could involve state support for hydroelectric power projects to free rural communities from the cost of running diesel generators, or other alternative energy sources.

Related article: The Rise of Oil

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