Empire editorial: A look back at 2007, hope for the future

Posted: Sunday, December 30, 2007

As we take stock of the past year and count the good with the bad, we can't help but be hopeful for the new year, because even past challenges offer newopportunities.

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Any account of 2007 must include the ongoing federal corruption probe that led to the arrest of two former state legislators and one sitting lawmaker. The investigation yielded guilty pleas from three lobbyists, including VECO Corp. CEO Bill Allen, and ultimately the convictions of former Reps. Pete Kott, R-Eagle River, and Vic Kohring, R-Wasilla.

Yet the bribery investigation's fallout is incomplete: The trial of former Juneau representative Bruce Weyhrauch was delayed until next year; testimony by lobbyists have implicated former Senate President Ben Stevens and current Sen. John Cowdery, R-Anchorage (though neither has been charged with anything); and the specter of VECO continues to haunt U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens and U.S. Rep. Don Young as they head into an election year.

The revelations of the past year have been painful and embarrassing. And it is easy to see why many Alaskans would be disenchanted with their political leaders. Nevertheless, there was some good newsto come out of the year'sscandals.

Legislators adopted tougher ethics laws and helped improve the Alaska PublicOffices Commission's oversight of the Legislature by providing the agency with an investigator.

The corruption probe, rightly or wrongly, tainted 2006's Petroleum Profits Tax, which gave the state only 22.5 percent of net oil profits. Discouraged by smaller than projected returns under PPT, Gov. Sarah Palin called the Legislature into a special session to rework the discredited tax structure. The end result is a larger share of oil profits, 25 percent, will now flow into state coffers.

But work still needs to be done to restore Alaskans' faith in their government. The ethics law passed this year doesn't seriously address conflicts of interest. For example, a legislator can ask to abstain from voting on an issue due to a conflict of interest but be forced to vote if one of his or her colleagues objects. It's astonishing that such a legal loophole exists, and it should be closed.

Although bolstering the staff of APOC is a good step, the agency still doesn't have the teeth to do its job. Currently the agency has only a year from the date of a campaign violation to bring a complaint. By the time many violations have come to light, the statute of limitations has expired. Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, has said he will introduce a bill next session seeking to extend the statute of limitations from one year to four. This would be a welcome change in the system.

But not all of the news in 2007 occurred in the Capitol or in courtrooms. After years of courtroom fights and battles fought on the Empire's opinion page, Coeur Alaska sat down with environmental groups to move the Kensington Mine forward.

The negotiations have been far from perfect - important groups such as Goldbelt Inc. were excluded from the process and talks have been unnecessarily shrouded in secrecy - but there appears to be reason for cautious optimism that the mine will open in a way that will satisfy conservationists and the mine's owners. Coeur Alaska has agreed to apply for permits to use paste tailings instead of dumping the rock waste into Lower Slate Lake, which was found to be a violation of the Clean Water Act.

With the sticky issue of what to do with the tailings seemingly solved, only a handful of issues remain to be dealt with, among them compensating Goldbelt for moving a transfer dock from Cascade Point to Yankee Cove. The parties involved should heed our advice and make next year's negotiations more transparent.

On the municipal level, much happened this year: The capital saw the opening of two new big-box stores; the voters decided to keep fluoride out of Juneau's water; and the Mendenhall Valley finally received voter approval for a pool of its own.

The addition of the big-box stores, as well as plans for future construction, is a hopeful sign that Juneau's economy is healthy. But the year brought news of a troubling population decrease, especially among residents under the age of 40. In response, the city moved forward with a revision of its comprehensive plan, the first since 1996. The report identified quality education, safety, a strong economy and maintaining a small-town sense of community as keys to combating Juneau's brain drain.

But an important component is missing: affordable housing. Hopefully, municipal leaders will attack this issue head on during the new year and bring substantive change in Juneau's housing situation.

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