29 September 2006

The Backlash Continues

The backlash is continuing. Four Alaska native villages are rejecting Hugo Chavez's free fuel:

Leaders from four Western Alaska villages have rejected an offer of free heating oil from a Venezuelan- owned company because that nation's president this month called President Bush "a devil" and made other inflammatory comments about the United States.

"Despite the critical need for fuel in our region, the Unangan (Aleut) people are Americans first, and we cannot support the political agenda attached to this donation," read a statement from Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association released late Thursday.

From my conversations with folks in this region - not extensive, mind you - I think this principled stand has not spread from the Aleutians.

Principles are great and I respect people who manage to take principled stands but I'm not sure this is the wisest step. Yes, the fuel may be tainted by its source but heat is necessary and fuel is expensive. Sometimes self-preservation needs to top all other considerations.

28 September 2006

The People Have the Power

I didn't realize there was such an obvious example in Fairbanks right now of why ballot initiatives can be so dangerous:

Adding Proposition 3 and Proposition 4 equals a Catch-22. The City Council would essentially be forced to enact a sales tax at the same time it would be prohibited from doing so. And if the public refused to vote for a sales tax, the city would then be desperately short of revenue. Although there could be other options for taxes and fees, it would not be easy to close the revenue gap, and most would be even less popular than a sales tax.
Prop. 3, as I get it, would impose a severe cap on property taxes, thus forcing a sales tax. Prop. 4 would forbid a sales tax, thus leaving the city's revenue streams completely compromised.

I have no problem giving power to the people. I just hope that when we do so, the people look at the whole picture and not just at the small item up for consideration on the ballot. Go talk to California, where something like 80% of the state's budget is mandated by ballot initiatives. It kind of makes you wonder why they even bother to have a state legislature.

Hitting Sarah Hard

Not only did the ADN write a pointed editorial about Sarah Palin this week, it also expanded its criticism to the cartoon:I think the "Palindrome" is a particularly inspired bit of punning. Any bets on how long it'll take before it shows up in a Knowles campaign press release?

27 September 2006

The Backlash Begins

I've been speaking with some Alaska native leaders in this region and they are - without exception - excited by the prospect of 100 gallons of free heating fuel from Venezualen-owned Citgo.

But not everyone shares their sentiments. The ADN has already editorialized against the program:

It's probably too late to undo the embarrassment this year, unless the North Slope oil companies are willing to volunteer the financial aid. But let's hope Alaska doesn't make the same mistake next year. The state, with all its oil wealth, and Alaska's regional Native corporations, with their profits, should provide leadership on the issue -- and not allow Venezuela to rub our noses in oil.
And now 7-Eleven is getting into the act:
7-Eleven Inc. dropped Venezuela-owned Citgo as its gasoline supplier after more than 20 years as part of a previously announced plan by the convenience store operator to launch its own brand of fuel.

7-Eleven officials said Wednesday that the decision was partly motivated by politics.

"Regardless of politics, we sympathize with many Americans' concern over derogatory comments about our country and its leadership recently made by Venezuela's president," said 7-Eleven spokeswoman Margaret Chabris.

"Certainly Chavez's position and statements over the past year or so didn't tempt us to stay with Citgo," she added.

I want to know why, if we want to react to Citgo's actions, no one has mentioned the most obvious sign of Citgo's presence in the United States on the other coast.
UPDATE: The Juneau Empire, via the News-Miner, has also joined the mix:
It's like a kick in the gut to open the newspaper and read that Alaskans are getting aid from the likes of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez.

With the high price of oil everywhere, who couldn't use a little help with the heating bills this winter?

The catch is that the help comes from Citgo, a Houston-based oil company owned by Venezuela. And Chavez, addressing the United Nations General Assembly about the same time, called President George Bush "the devil." He then said that the podium where Bush had spoken still smelled of sulfur.

If Chavez wanted to get the public's attention, he certainly succeeded, judging from coverage on cable news shows. If he wanted to win friends in Alaska, he failed. You don't have to have voted for Bush to be offended by such remarks.

Sarah-Speak II

I've already had my problems with Sarah Palin's campaign statements. Yesterday, I also had a bit of a problem with Tony Knowles. Today, the ADN criticizes Palin for the same thing I criticized Knowles for yesterday:

No candidate can be all things to all people. Ms. Palin's answers on some key issues show she is perhaps trying too hard to tell people what they want to hear.
Alaska is a small enough state that people can get to know their candidates pretty well. It's not unreasonable for a reasonably interested voter to expect to meet even the gubernatorial candidates. As we do meet them, I'd have a lot more respect for the candidates who tell us what they think, rather than what they think we want to hear. In a television or radio or newspaper ad, it's easier to try to be all things to all people. But this campaign is less mediated by those strategies than others. Just tell us who you are and stop pandering.

26 September 2006


Tony Knowles was in Nome this morning. Though he didn't make time to stop by KNOM's Studio C, I did attend his lunchtime public forum. I was particularly disappointed to his comments which he gave, unprompted, on our somewhat controversial Rock Creek Mine:

We have to empower not take away local participation. A transparent process and best done by stakeholders up front. In regards to Rock Creek mine, let's make sure that the local people have an opportunity to weigh in. I think the process in some ways fell down and that's what I would encourage without giving an opinion of a yes or no on it.
(I have the tape of this cut but you'll just have to trust I transcribed it correctly.)

This is such pandering. He prefaced his comments on Rock Creek by noting he supports the Kensington Mine and opposes Pebble. How come he can't take an equally strong position on Rock Creek? Is it because he doesn't know enough about it? If so, how come he brought the issue up unsolicited in his opening remarks? Is it because he wanted to curry favor with the local friendly audience by appearing to echo their very concerns? I think so.

My other problem with the comment is that it reveals his lack of knowledge of the issue. There was a public process that did solicit local involvement. I covered this process extensively (and the gold company's earlier attempts to inform the public) and heard many Nomeites express their views. Then, an influential group of folks realized the process was passing them by and started organizing because they didn't have their act together earlier.

My general wish for politics is that candidates stop being all things to all people. That's impossible. If candidates would stick to what they believe, clearly identify when they disagree with an issue (and not be ashamed of it - it's alright to have varying opinions), and not pretend to be an expert on every possible issue, I'd be a lot more interested in them.

Joking About It

I inadvertently pre-saged the ADN's political cartoon today.It's a sad sign when we are making jokes three months before the legislative session even starts about the chances of ethics reform.

If we really want ethics reform, I continue to insist there is another way (of diminishing practicality).

25 September 2006

Tails Never Fails

I have been following this story with rapt attention. How come they didn't provide a live feed of the event we could have aired?

Where I have heard this before?

The gubernatorial candidates are promising ethics reform. The Bill Allens of the world should run and hide:

As voters wait to see why the FBI raided the offices of several Alaska legislators last month -- and to see who, if anyone, will get in trouble -- candidates for governor say they've got plenty of ideas on how to keep politicians honest.

More money for the watchdog agency that looks into public officials' pocketbooks? Pay it, say Democrat Tony Knowles, Republican Sarah Palin and independent Andrew Halcro.

The former attorney general could own more than $100,000 of stock in a company he could assist in his state job because of fuzzy ethics rules? Candidates say they want to make the law crystal clear.

And what about those state legislators who are paid thousands of dollars as consultants for private companies, but don't have to say what it is, exactly, they do for the money? All three candidates say it's got to stop.

Wait, this sounds familiar. Where have I heard this before? Oh right, before the last legislative session. And what happened? Nothing.

The only way ethics reform will ever happen is if it's in the interest of the politicians concerned. And right now it's in the interest of some (powerful) politicians not to change the system because they derive such a huge benefit from it ("consulting" contracts, conflict of interest loopholes, and so on).

The only way to make ethics reform in the interest of a majority of lawmakers is if something more basic than cash is put at stake - their job. If there's a continued "public outcry" (sparked by media coverage) for ethics reform, then lawmakers might feel sufficiently pressured to change their ways. But January is a long way away and the legislative agenda has a way of getting crowded quickly (natural gas pipeline, anyone? PERS and TRS relief?). So don't count me surprised if these ethics problems are not addressed next session.

There's another way, of course.

Placing Blame

As I've indicated before, I think the state's 7-billion dollar hole in PERS and TRS is a fairly substantial issue. And I'm glad to see that the state is continuing to consider whether or not to seek some sort of legal recompense from the actuaries who appear to be (partly) responsible for this whole mess:

State attorneys have not yet decided whether to sue the actuarial company whose mistakes contributed to Alaska's $6.9 billion pension shortfall.

The Alaska Legislature in May appropriated $400,000 from the Public Employees and Teachers Retirement systems to the Department of Administration "for costs of an investigation related to potential litigation."

Mercer was replaced as the state's actuary last year by Buck Consultants, which did an extensive recalculation of Alaska's pension and health care liabilities. Buck Consultants found that Mercer had underestimated medical costs by about 7 percent.

But let's be clear here. There's no way that suing Mercer is going to result in a 7-billion dollar settlement. Filling that hole is still going to be the responsibility of Alaskans, primarily.

And let's be clear about one other thing: Mercer isn't entirely to blame. Across the board and around the industrialized world, longer life expectancies, increasing health-care costs, and so many other factors and making pension management one of the most difficult issues of our time.

This is not a problem that Alaska can sue its way out of. And I'd like to hear more from the gubernatorial candidates on what they'll do about this.

22 September 2006

Oh, those crazy Alaskans

Alaska's political scene gets written-up in the Seattle Times this morning:

Alaska, a state seemingly still in puberty, always has been known for its colorful characters and political upheavals.

But even by Alaska standards, things have been pretty wild lately.

Last month, Gov. Frank Murkowski suffered a humiliating defeat in the Republican primary, losing badly to the former mayor of a town not much bigger than Omak. A U.S. senator for 22 years before becoming governor, Murkowski was dogged by ethics scandals and political missteps, including appointing his daughter to his old job in Congress and buying a private jet.

On Aug. 31, FBI agents swarmed the offices of six legislators, including Senate President Ben Stevens — son of the state's most powerful figure, U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens. At the Capitol in Juneau, agents lugged boxes marked "evidence" past photo-snapping tourists.

I particularly like the puberty line.

I would like to - again - respectfully disagree with the idea that Wasilla is a small-town. For the umpteenth time, isn't the Mat-Su the fastest-growing region of the state? When I think small town, I don't think of the place people talk about moving the capital.

UPDATE: But at least Alaska's governor's race isn't as wacky as Texas', as the New York Times amply demonstrates:

Mr. Friedman’s campaign raked in $60,000 at a Houston steakhouse fund-raiser Sept. 5 led by the socialite Carolyn Farb and featuring the guitarist Billy F. Gibbons of the Texas band ZZ Top and Dick DeGuerin, the lead lawyer defending Tom DeLay against criminal campaign finance charges. Mr. Friedman will win, Mr. DeGuerin predicted, “and then he’s going to make me attorney general.”

Would that I could interview Kinky Friedman...

21 September 2006

One Month

The primary election was a month ago (give or take a day) and it's curious how the gubernatorial race has shaped up since then.

The way I see it, I've been overwhelmed by policy proposals from Andrew Halcro and Knowles/Berkowitz. My inbox keeps getting ideas-based pitches from the two campaigns. No issue in particular (not even the natural gas pipeline) appears to have emerged as the issue on which this election will be decided but there are plenty of ideas out there on which voters can make their choices. Some of these ideas are no good or not new but at least they're ideas.

But I have yet to see anything similar from Sarah Palin. Instead, I've seen her back away from what I assume was her support for the All-Alaska route during the primary, get involved in some intra-party squabbling, criticize other candidates' ideas (but even then mostly on the margins - I don't feel there's been much that's been substantive), and not provide any of her own.

Palin went into the general election as the favorite, I think, given all the votes she got in the primary and the low turnout in the Democratic race. Some polls even appeared to confirm that. I think there was a general expectation that Knowles would have to go negative to gain traction. But he's stuck to a pretty upbeat message (or at least not an explicitly negative message - relentlessly using the word "experience" about his campaign in contrast to Palin is just good strategy, not a negative tactic) and I have a good sense of what he would make his priorities in office. Meanwhile, a month a half before election day, I'm still not sure what a Palin administration would do or look like.

But are elections decided on personalities or are they decided on charisma and personality? Where's this race going?

20 September 2006

Gas Tax

I already know how I'm going to vote on the 90 days ballot question but I haven't made up my mind on the gas reserves tax sponsored by Eric Croft and company.

I bring up the issue because of the excellent coverage in today's News-Miner about the lunch debate on the issue:

Rep. Eric Croft, a Democrat from Anchorage and a primary sponsor of the so-called reserves tax, argued the tax was imperative in getting the main oil and gas leaseholders in the state to build a gas pipeline quickly.

Roger Marks, a petroleum economist with the state’s Department of Revenue, said the tax would slow the process and could even kill the pipeline project.

And Joe Beedle, executive vice president for Northrim Bank, gave the proposed tax a “D grade,” saying it was “discouraging, dangerous and a distraction” that would cause legal disputes and delays.

I interviewed Roger Marks when he was in Nome in May or June and was impressed by his grasp of the issues and his ability to make complex subjects readily available to a general audience. So if he's opposing the tax, I'm inclined to vote against it. I'm particularly swayed by the point about years of litigation.

(Of course, how much is he arguing what he believes and how much is he arguing what his administration believes? The dilemma of a career civil servant is that administrations change but somehow he must maintain his own set of beliefs.)

But I also can intuitively grasp Croft's point about incentives and dis-incentives. I assume carrots and sticks work as well in the oil industry as they do in my life.

An argument I haven't heard made is the message it would send to the oil industry. Alaska's most important industry plays a vital role in the state but I think it would send an interesting measure to the industry if Alaskans approved this tax. It might say that Alaskans - not the energy producers - actually are in charge and do fundamentally have power in this state. Particularly following the partial shutdown of Prudhoe Bay and the VECO investigation, it might be seen as interesting rebuke. Of course, should Alaskans be using this ballot measure as a vehicle for sending a message to the oil companies or should one's decision on how to vote be confined solely to the merits of the proposal?


If you ever needed confirmation that the editorial and news departments at newspapers don't influence each other's work, consider this: ADN had an editorial on Venezuela's heating fuel program for Alaska natives September 6; it took the news department until today to write a story about the program.

Here's my favorite part:

The 100-gallon gift won't last all winter, but it will be a huge help, said James James, the tribal administrator in Tununak.

He wouldn't comment on the political back story.

"What Venezuela is doing is very awesome and we appreciate them doing it," he said.

But isn't calling the program "awesome" a comment?

19 September 2006

Paying for School

I meant a while back to comment on Andrew Halcro's idea to take a part of minors' PFDs to pay for education or houses or what-have-you:

Halcro, who is running for governor as an independent, told the Anchorage Lions Club on Friday that part of his plan for tweaking the state education system is to sock away three-quarters of every child's dividend check.

Once they turned 18, the only way kids could get their hands on the money would be to use it for college -- or some kind of schooling -- or to help buy their first home.

The program wouldn't be optional, Halcro said.

I'll put myself in Sarah Palin's camp and say I don't like it, but not for Sarah reasons.

I don't like it because it doesn't add any new money to the system. The permanent fund money is already floating around the state and if parents want to save for their children, I say go for it.

Meanwhile, let's focus on helping everyone get the education they want and need. The state and federal governments already do that but we clearly need to do a better job - more money for loans and grants, lower tuitions, easier access, programs that appeal to a wide variety of students at different walks of life, and so on. Halcro's proposal would help people afford education but it wouldn't do so with money they couldn't already spend on it. We need more money (and more ideas) to confront the educational challenges this society faces.

So here's a proposal that riffs off of Halcro's. Create savings accounts for every child at birth (definitely not my idea - in fact, it's been done in several other countries) and put in a certain amount every year on the child's birthday. The child can't touch it until they turn 18 (or graduates from high school) and then can use it for a variety of specific purposes, most notably education.

But I agree we should be encouraging people to save. In these accounts, parents would have an option to deposit part of the child's PFD. This has to be as easy as possible, like checking a box when you sign up for the PFD. Before you know it, high school graduates have money for school, we're not taking anyone's PFD away from them, and there's more money out there to increase educational opportunity.

The next step is to increase the amount of money adults save...

Sarah's staff

I have never met Sarah Palin (though I hope to) but I am sure she is a very nice person, who has the best interests of Alaskans at heart.

That said, why do I have so much difficulty with her staff? While trying to schedule a call-in show with her for October, I heard from at least five different staff members in the course of two days, all of whom said they really wanted to do it and would get right back to me. After not hearing anything for a week, I called back and was asked what exactly it was that I wanted again, though I had explained it in a detailed e-mail to at least three people. Then, when the person I was speaking with checked the calendar, he saw I was already on it, at a time that I had explicitly said would not work.

To make a long story short, I finally got a time set up. And I realize that bush radio stations are a dime a dozen and we may not be the highest priority. But it strikes me that when you've got a seasoned campaigner like Tony Knowles, running a slipshod campaign office is not a good strategy.

18 September 2006


I let Sarah Palin's response to the massive PERS and TRS increases pass by last week:

"We know that Tier 4 may have some unintended consequences, making it tougher to recruit or retain teachers and emergency workers," Palin said.

But the defined-contribution system was needed, she added: "We know we had to do something different there because of the effects of globalization on our economy."

Excuse me? Just how does globalization tie into the ARMB's rate hike? Are we planning on outsourcing our state departments to Taiwan or China? How did Sarah see the effects of globalization when she was making PERS payments as mayor of Wasilla? Could someone please ask Sarah if she knows what she's talking about?

15 September 2006

Compass Piece

My piece on ethics is one of today's Compass columns in the ADN. The central point:

Here's an idea: As a gracious final act on the Alaska political stage, the governor should call a third and final special session devoted specifically to ethics reform.

It would allow those lawmakers who claim to want to pass new ethics regulations a chance to address the issue exclusively. It would allow the public to learn more about how Juneau works and the relationship between lobbyists and lawmakers. It would bring into the open a discussion about the Veco investigation that has so far been confined to rumors passed among Alaskans who are politically connected.

If you're coming to this site for the first time, welcome! Glad to have you here and please, consider coming back some time.

13 September 2006


Some significant news today over the AP wire:

Starting next year, Alaska school districts and municipalities will see huge spikes in what they have to pay into the state's retirement systems.

The Alaska Retirement Management Board approved the increases in employer contributions to the Public Employees Retirement System and the Teachers Retirement System this week. The increases are meant to whittle away at the systems' $6.9 billion shortfall over the next 25 years.

For example, the city of Fairbanks' obligation to the public employees' system will rise from $2.4 million this year to $13 million for the next fiscal year starting in July, according to the Alaska Division of Retirement and Benefits.

This might seem like boring budget minutiae but it is overwhelmingly important. In Nome this year, there was quite a bit of public attention to the school district's tight budget. The budget was tight and couldn't add any of a number of new programs people wanted because of increased retirement system contributions. What's it going to be like next spring when the budget is even tighter and the district needs to start making some cuts? (I've got calls out to the city and the school district to try to get a dollar value on this hit. No news yet, though.)

This reveals, I think, the problem with the defined contribution retirement plan the legislature passed in 2005. A defined contribution plan might make sense to help reduce the amount the state pays out in benefits. But what about the transition? That huge unfunded liability still exists (and is getting bigger) and no plans were made to cover it. The only plan appears to be to appropriate huge sums of money to cover a part of the hole. But that huge opportunity cost was never part of the defined contribution plan debate. The state is being forced to throw its oil surprise into this instead of say, education, public safety, health care, or any of a number of other things.

The House Ways and Means committee talked about this issue this past session but nothing got done on either side of the legislature. Now, we've reached a point where the funding hole is being passed on to the municipalities and schools, though it's not their fault. And no one - absolutely no one - is talking about how the retirement system was allowed to get into such a huge hole in the first place.

To our lawmakers now campaigning around the state, I say, with as much irony as I can muster, thanks for doing such a good job.

12 September 2006

90 Days?

I don't know who'll get my support this fall in the governor's race but I do know that I won't be voting for the ballot measure that would shorten the legislative session to 90 days.

Representative Jay Ramras, who's one of the sponsors of the measure, trumpeted it in the ADN yesterday morning:

Some legislators say they just don't want to be rushed, but I can tell you the first 30 days of a legislative session serve no productive purpose. Requiring a 90-day session -- as the initiative proposes -- is really about valuing time. When we value time, many of us believe, it will result in a better process.
I can understand that Jay doesn't want his time wasted and if, as he claims, "some of the best and brightest former legislators" have proposed this in the past, it makes sense to give it some honest thought.

When I do that, the closest parallel I can think of is a semester of college. Like a legislative session, the real work gets done at the end - final exams, term papers, and, of course, grades. It's easy to see how students "waste" the first part of the semester, participating in extra-curricular activities, playing sports, meeting new people, and, yes, partying.

But it's that first part of the semester that lays the groundwork for the all the final work. When I was in grad school, my course grades generally depended on one paper handed at the end of class. I generally wrote that paper in the last week or two of the term but when I wrote it, the first thing I did was review all my notes from the class, trying to get a sense of the scope of topics we covered and what my paper should reflect and include. In many cases, it was something I learned in the first weeks of class that enabled me to write a quality paper (or so I thought).

My point is that while the product may not be visible until the very end, the product is no less dependent on all of what comes before it. I haven't experienced all the intricacies of a legislative session or those cocktail parties, but I think the same is true for a legislative session.

The issues confronting Alaska these days - the terms of a natural gas pipeline, improving educational performance, ensuring public safety across the state, the relationship between the state and the oil industry, and so on - require more consideration and thought, not less. If lawmakers would rather spend their time at cocktail parties, I would hope that their performance would reflect that and their constituents would respond appropriately. But the solution is decidedly not to reduce the amount of time lawmakers have to consider these issues.

Ethan Berkowitz

Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Ethan Berkowitz was in KNOM's Studio C this morning. Some initial thoughts:

  • Like Andrew Halcro, what I appreciate about Ethan is that he's willing to engage in a conversation and actual exchange of ideas. I felt very comfortable speaking with him because it just seemed like a natural give-and-take as I might have with anyone else. One difference is that Ethan was more willing to slip into sound bites ("we don't want corrosion in our pipeline and we don't want corrosion in our legislature") than I'd have preferred but he's smart and knows I need to cut him down into sound cuts for the radio.
  • I couldn't get anything out of him on his relationship with Tony Knowles. He agrees they have different histories (particularly Tony's connection to the oil industry and Ethan's "skepticism" of the industry) but thinks that can only be complementary. Like he has so many times before, he said he only wants what's best for Alaska and that's why he got out of the way when Tony declared.
  • He really has some very typically left-leaning policy proposals - universal pre-kindergarten, a skepticism of standardized testing, more money for drug and alcohol prevention, etc. - but he does a very good job of couching them in libertarian-esque terms Alaskans might appreciate - "we need to be more self-reliant" or "we need to live up to Alaska's promise." It's an interesting and smart wording choice.
  • I think (I hope) I caught him off guard a bit by asking him not about ballot-counting and electronic voting in his presumed role as head of Divison of Elections but about low turnout and voter apathy. He said all the right things about improving participation in government (and cleverly tied it to ethics) but I didn't hear anything specific or new from him. That was somewhat disappointing.
  • He didn't slam the Republicans like I thought he would, particularly on the VECO investigation. Sure, there was some comment on that but I didn't hear the soundbite I expected, namely the "culture of corruption" I've heard from everyone from Harry Reid to Eric Croft. Also, he completely passed on my opportunity to "go negative" on Palin and Parnell (what differentiates you and Tony from them), explicitly saying he couldn't speak for them and would rather talk only about himself. He was upbeat the whole time.
  • He had no special insights for how I could get a job in Antarctica, despite his experience there. Perhaps I shot too high when I thought I could parlay the interview into my next adventure.
There was much more, of course, in the half-hour conversation but that'll do for now. Tony Knowles will be on KNOM in early October. I look forward to learning more about him.


The U.S. government today gave its feeble response to Hugo Chavez's latest headline-grabbing moment by announcing that the Department of Health and Human Services is releasing nearly 80 million dollars in additional funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program or LIHEAP. (I can't find the link.) Alaska gets a whopping 1.43 million of that.

Lisa Murkowski, in a press release, makes one good point and one dumb one. The good one:

"As the price of heating fuel becomes more expensive, some people may resort to unsafe methods to heat their homes.... These methods of heating are not only fire hazards, but they also create the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning."
The slightly less intelligent one:
"These funds will ensure that we keep Alaskans safe and warm during the upcoming cold seasons."
Excuse me? At $2.75, which is what Nome Joint Utility just paid for diesel, $1.43 million gets 520,000 gallons of fuel. That's not so much going to get us through the winter.

All of this follows a recent announcement that Hugo Chavez is expanding his "From the Venezuelan heart to the U.S. hearths" program by having CITGO buy about 5 to 10 million gallons of fuel for rural Alaska natives.

Nome is now paying 31-cents a kilowatt hour for electricity, $3.99 for gas (I understand it's closer to $5 in Kotzebue), and who knows how much for heating oil. To both Mr. Chavez and Mr. Bush we say thank you but we also note it's too little, too late. The rapidly-developing consensus in Nome is that the price of energy is the most fundamental issue facing the community and the solution is only going to come from within the community.

11 September 2006


My faith in democracy is (somewhat) restored. There are some actual races in next month's city election.

Following this evening's filing deadline, there are five candidates running for the Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation Board of Directors seat and several of them are even reasonably qualified and would make good members. There are two people running for a school board seat, three for a utility board seat, and three for a common council seat.

I am a little disappointed that so many incumbents are going unchallenged (most of these races are for open seats - only in the council race is there an incumbent under fire).

Issues confronting these candidates -

-the Rock Creek and Big Hurrah gold mines, particularly the permitting process, use of cyanide, and economic and environmental impacts.
-the price of fuel - what (if anything) can be done?
-budgetary principles - how do you decide where to allocate money in an era of fiscal constraints?
-what to do with all your money? (this is only for NSEDC)
-and so many more...

10 September 2006

Sticking up for Alaska media

There was some talk a few days back that no major Alaskan media sources were doing enough reporting and investigation into the FBI raid in connection with VECO. I somewhat agreed with it at the time with the knowledge that ADN probably sells more papers when the State Fair is on the cover, rather than a lengthy article about VECO.

But lately, I think, ADN has outdone itself. There's two substantial issues in the state right now - the shutdown of Prudhoe Bay and the VECO investigation.

On the former, there's this morning's article about hints of corrosion problems at Prudhoe Bay some years back:

Three times between early 2003 and late 2004, BP officials were warned that a "chilling atmosphere" made workers engaged in critical pipeline-corrosion work in the North Slope oil fields afraid to report environmental and safety concerns.
This is a well-written, informative, and deeply important piece of journalism, written, as near as I can tell, by an Alaskan journalist about an Alaskan issue.

On the VECO issue, there was that article the other day about the history of VECO's role in Alaskan politics, which I cannot now find. This was more reportorial than investigatory in nature but it was an important and informative piece of journalism that summarized a wide variety of important information into a read-able and accessible piece of work. There was also the piece about the effect the investigation is having on the Republican party. Also a solid piece of journalism.

I sometimes despair of the state of the news media in this country but Alaskan journalists have been doing a fine job lately.

09 September 2006

Three Candidates?

One thing that's surprised me about the gubernatorial race so far is that the media (and, by that, I mean ADN and KTUU) are clearly defining this as a three-way race. Andrew Halcro appears to get covered in every article about the race, including this one about the NEA's decision not to endorse a particular candidate.

I was thinking about this because I'm putting together a series of call-in shows with the gubernatorial candidates and we want back and forth and whether or not to call Halcro. Ultimately we did and will do a show with him (though I'm really unsure what kind of calls we'll get) but it was only because ADN was making him seem like a legitimate candidate.

I'm sure Andrew loves the attention but is it deserved? According to that Dittman poll I saw someplace, he's only at 3 per cent of the vote. I don't like making decisions based on poll results but it does strike me as a bit worrisome for the Halcro/Lancaster campaign. Why should we treat Halcro as any different than any of the other non-major party candidates?

Here's the question: how did Halcro make this happen? When I interviewed him in April, he came off as a guy who thinks seriously about policy and isn't always interested in giving platitude-filled soundbites for answers. I'd say that endears him to reporters who are tired of hearing the same thing over and again. But is it enough to earn him all this coverage?

UPDATE: The ADN also has an article about the NEA's non-endorsement, which also gives play to Halcro. But here's the best part:

Palin wrote that both the old retirement system and a 401(k)-type retirement system have their benefits, and should be studied to decide if a better, third approach could combine the two.
For a candidate who's in danger of being labelled as lacking in firm positions on a variety of issues, it strikes me that this isn't the most hopeful of sentences, particularly when it's in the context of a story that has fairly firm policy ideas from Halcro and Knowles.

Saying you're going to be the first "PTA Mom" to be governor doesn't seem like such a solid campaign strategy. But then again, how many people care about policy when they decide who to vote for?

08 September 2006

A Picture's Worth a Thousand Words

BP gets a picture of its executives no company ever wants - its senior management swearing to tell the truth before Congress.

But there's one person who seems a bit out of place in that picture. He's the guy on the far left, Richard Woollam the former chief corrosion monitor for the company. You look at that picture and it's clear how out of place he is among the black suits, pressed shirts, and relatively thin men.

This other picture from the ADN, shows him in all his glory. He couldn't have sprung for a sport jacket?

I think BP should be glad he was present yesterday. By presenting such a diametrically opposite image to what the executives presented, refusing to testify, and then running away without speaking to anyone, he only confirms himself in the role that BP management wants him to play now: scapegoat.

I, for one, would be a bit more accepting of the scapegoat theory if I'd heard his name before his star turn yesterday. But it's somewhat hard to believe the BP executives when they pull a guy out of nowhere, parade him before the country, and then let him run away without actually explaining anything.

I'm Not Dead Yet

Ah, the perils of a lame duck hunting for ducks:

Gov. Frank Murkowski says he returned from a duck hunting trip to the surprising news that he was simply going to hand off two years' worth of natural gas pipeline negotiations to his successor.

Not true, he told The Associated Press on Friday.

Instead, his team will finish work on the contract for the $25 billion gas pipeline to Canada and only then will he decide whether to call a special session.

"I was kind of astounded that we left the impression that we were folding our tents and leaving it for the next administration," Murkowski said.

Ultimately, I think this is just for show. There's no way, given the current environment, that there will be a third session on the natural gas pipeline. The issues are just too toxic right now.

But perhaps Murkowski can make himself feel a little less duckish by going through the motions and "governing" all the way up until December. It'll be an interesting test of the common belief that Jim Clark is the puppet-master in the administration. If Clark says it's dead, it must be, right?

Not for Frank to go softly into the night.

No Candidates

Here's the piece from the Nome Nugget I referenced yesterday:

There are issues and concerns. Nomeites have never been without opinions. However, it takes a special person to dedicate their time to the democratic principles of city government and run for office. It can be intimidating to fill out all the forms and step into the public spotlight, but few Nomeites have ever been scared off by stage fright. Good citizens can step up to the plate and help the citizens of Nome take on some serious long-term issues.
As of the close of business yesterday, here's how the races look. All three incumbents are running for their city council seats uncontested. No one, not even the incumbents, is running for the two seats on the school board or the two on the utility board. Only one person is running for the Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation Board of Directors.

The deadline for filing is this Monday at 5pm. I know there might be some sort of advantage to be gained by waiting until the last minute before filing but this is more than a little pathetic and ridiculous.

I mentioned yesterday that cyanide is an important issue but there are so many more. A lot of people in Nome showed up this spring to voice their opinions on the school's budget for this year. There was one meeting where more than 20 people took time to address the school board during the public comment period. I go to every school board meeting and that never happens.

Nomeites are now paying 31-cents a kilowatt hour for electricity. That's a 6-cent increase from last year. Alternative energy is drawing a lot of attention from the landlords and the Chamber of Commerce. Doesn't someone want to promote it on the Utility Board?

NSEDC is on the verge of becoming a 100-million dollar company and is already the economic powerhouse in the region. I would love a seat on its board. Surely someone else does too.

07 September 2006


The News-Miner reminds folks of the importance of the upcoming October 3rd elections:

And yet it can easily be argued that the outcome of local election–for the Fairbanks North Star Borough, its school board, and the cities of Fairbanks and North Pole–affects the day-to-day life of more people than does the outcome of the state election.

Decisions about allocating school funding are made locally. So to, to some extent, are the choices about what our children learn in the borough’s schools.

This week's Nome Nugget, which I can't find on-line yet, also exhorts readers to pay attention to the upcoming elections and even run for office. So far in Nome, there are no candidates for school board or utility board and only the incumbents are running for re-election.

And so, at a time when folks in Nome are getting pretty testy about the Rock Creek development, it seems a perfect time to run for office. There are numerous eloquent people who have been addressing the common council in Nome in past weeks. On this morning's Sounding Board, there were numerous (more than I've ever seen) callers who state their opposition to the gold mine. Surely, one or two of those would make a good candidate.

Of course, it would be a lot of work and it would mean that these people have to concern themselves with the both the controversial and the mundane aspects of city life. It would probably curtail their social lives. It would force them to learn about quite a lot of new issues. There'd be a lot of hard work and you wouldn't be able to show up a meeting, state your piece, feel self-satisfied, and then walk out on the rest of the meeting. But the communities need people who are willing to do some hard work to function.

I, of course, won't be running for office because of the conflict of interest with my job but also because I am forbidden from holding office as an Americorps volunteer.

06 September 2006

Another Session... but not on the gas pipeline

There were several stories last fall - in advance of this year's regular legislative session - about various ethics bills. As I recall, Ralph Seekins' proposal was fairly controversial and drew the most attention. This attention came, in part, on the heels of several high-profile resignations in the Murkowski administration. I seem to recall a wide variety of people, from both parties, talking about the importance of improving ethical standards in public life.

And then the session happened. A few weeks in, Governor Murkowski proposed revamping oil taxes and everything got pushed to the side, including the ethics reform that "everyone" had been trumpeting as an important issue. There was no hue and cry from the public. The Democrats disagreed with Republicans but over the gas tax, not because there was no movement on the ethics legislation.

And now we hear that ethics legislation will get a closer look next term:

Earlier this year, state Rep. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, introduced a bill to require a description of the services provided by legislators to private companies that would be sufficient for “a person of ordinary understanding.” The bill passed one committee in the House and then died of neglect.

House Speaker John Harris said he expects the bill to get a stronger look next session.
Here's an idea - instead of calling a third special session on the natural gas pipeline (which isn't going to happen anyway), Governor Murkowski should call a final special session devoted solely to ethics legislation. It'd be a gracious final act as fades from the Alaska political stage and it would allow all these lawmakers who apparently really want to pass ethics legislation to devote all their time in Juneau to it.

The Battle within the Battle

One section of this morning's ADN article on VECO money in the gubernatorial race really grabbed me:

Palin's running mate, Sean Parnell, received two $500 checks from Veco officers in August, including one from Veco chief executive officer Bill J. Allen, and collected about $16,000 while running for the Legislature in the 1990s.

Palin, meantime, spent the primary election defending criticism from the Voice of the Times -- a separate editorial space produced by Veco that appears in the Daily News everyday.

While Palin often draws heat from the oil industry for her association with a natural gas pipeline plan that's at odds with the route sought by oil companies, Parnell is a former oil lobbyist. Can they co-exist on the same ticket?

As you'd expect, the Palin camp makes all the right noises about Parnell but the pairing did strike me as odd on election night. Parnell strikes me as the candidate of the Republican establishment and Palin, clearly, was the maverick outsider.

Coming on the heels of the ongoing (I assume) spat between Palin and Randy Ruedrich, it makes for an interesting battle-within-a-battle. Not only is there the Palin v. Knowles campaign, there's also the Palin v. Ruedrich disagreement, a sub-part of which is the Palin v. Parnell differences.

I'm sure Palin and Parnell will be able to smooth things over on the surface but it does strike me as yet another opening for an experienced campaigner like Tony Knowles to exploit.

05 September 2006

Diane Benson

Diane Benson, Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress, was in KNOM's Studio C today. I spoke with her for about 45 minutes and then promptly - and accidentally - deleted the interview. Nonetheless, some notes.

-She's not a good politician. By that I mean she doesn't have ready "sound-biteable" answers for many of the questions I asked that she should have expected. But when she gets talking about issues she cares about (e.g. veterans' benefits, community empowerment), she had some good thoughts to share.

-She gets defensive very easily. When I asked her about her 2002 run for governor as a Green party candidate and then asked her what she would say to people who might see her as a political opportunist for running as a Democrat now, she said I was being "argumentative" and got pretty huffy.

-She raised a good point about how difficult it is for people to run for office since every last piece of information about them becomes public knowledge and it can be tough to put up with the scrutiny.

-She self-identifies as an Alaska Native but only told me that only after I explicitly asked. There's no information about it on her web site (that I could find) and she says she doesn't think people should choose candidates on the basis of race or religion or ethnicity.

-The comments she kept returning to were the predictable ones about Don Young and his campaign contributions from companies and how he doesn't really represent the people of Alaska. I was expecting it but was pleasantly surprised at how compellingly she made her point.

-She really danced around the issue of Iraq, which I found surprising since she talks a lot about how her son's injury in Iraq led to her candidacy (though she didn't draw that explicit connection today). I tried to ask her about what policies or principles she would follow as she debated the issue in Congress and I had to ask several times because she kept asking rhetorical questions without saying she was committed to withdrawal (though she called it a "quagmire") or saying she wanted to see the effort continue (though she said we needed to do a better job supporting the troops) or offering any alternative paths.

-She thinks Alaska fits right into the nationwide anti-incumbent mood and people should vote for her because Democrats are going to re-take the House in November and Don Young will be a nobody then. So will she, though.

Initial verdict: cannon-fodder for the Young machine but at least a somewhat respectable candidate who can be reasonably well-spoken at times.

04 September 2006

Labor Day Showdown

I might have found NPR's coverage of the event disappointing but today's Great Bathtub Race was entertaining, as always, and a pleasant reminder of why small-town life can be so enjoyable. The KNOM "Black Widow" (pictured below) limped into last place for the third year in a row (we're collecting quite the pile of tortoise trophies) but at least the rig didn't fall apart this year. The weather was uncommonly beautiful, quite unlike last year's race where I was bundled up and wondering how I would ever make it through the winter.
Since my digital camera is on the fritz, I've posted some pictures of last year's race until I get some of the 2006 edition.

The Black Widow, the most poorly-designed bathtub (sorry Les) in competition. The weight is distributed all wrong and most of your energy is spent holding the bathtub up, not pushing it forward.
Starting in front of city hall...
In process, just before the duct tape on my side gave way and we lost most of our water out the back, onto my foot and nearly our team captain before righting our rig and limping across the finish line.

Interesting aside... the Discovery Channel was supposed to be filming our event but they were nowhere to be seen today. Word is that they knew Steve Irwin and were so distraught by his death, they weren't able to work today.

03 September 2006

This is appalling. NPR decides to shine a light on Western Alaska and what do they cover? The "Great" Bathtub Race, 2006. I realize this is a "diversion" but in a region with some of the highest unemployment, poverty, mortality (I could go on) rates in the country, they chose to represent the Seward Peninsula to the rest of the country by means of a minute-and-a-half meaningless race.

For the record, I took a call from an NPR producer on Friday. She was desperately looking for some sound to go with the story and had heard we cover the race live. We do, but only as a Labor Day diversion, which is what it is. We certainly don't record it. I told her this, conveyed feelings similar to those expressed in the previous paragraph, and told her I had plenty of ideas for good NPR stories if she was willing to exert a little effort. Anyway... that's probably why they interviewed Nancy McGuire and not me.

KNOM's defending last place team will make an appearance tomorrow at high noon on Front Street. This year, I hope the "Black Widow," as we call our rig, will make it through the entire race without falling apart.

Timing is Everything

It's been a busy travel time for me lately - Fairbanks last weekend and Wales this weekend. In the process, I had to drop a trip to Koyuk and Elim to cover the Bering Strait School District Board of Education meeting this past Thursday and Friday. I thought that could go to the bottom of the pile, after looking at the agenda and not seeing anything of very great importance.

Of course, I was wrong, as I discovered when I returned to my desk this evening and saw a BSSD press release, the first sentence of which reads, "The Bering Strait School Board announces the retirement of Superintendent John Davis effective June 30, 2007." Well, it would have been nice to have some tape from him or Albert Washington, the board chair, but I guess that's life.

That being said, John Davis is somebody I admire greatly, based on my small number of meetings with him. Not only is he genuinely friendly (he once offered me a ride off of Little Diomede Island when I was weathered in but his pilot was willing to fly) but he also strikes me as an excellent educator.

And while my timing may have been off, his is perfect. Giving adequate warning of his departure is probably the best step he could take to ensure a smooth transition and the continuation of the progress he's started.

01 September 2006


I'll be in Wales (Alaska, of course) this weekend for the 7th annual Kingikmiut (that's KING-ik-mute) Dance Festival. There'll be drummers and dancers from Point Hope, Gambell, Teller, Brevig, Wales, and Shishmaref, lots of Eskimo food (I hope), and a couple of good games of Eskimo baseball.

But no blogging. Maybe I'll be able to coax some life back into my digital camera and get some shots. Otherwise it'll be 35mm all the way.

Have a safe weekend.

The Plot Thickens

I am relishing each and every development in the FBI's raid on legislative offices. Particularly this one, which set off a bit of soul-searching as to what words we would and would not say on air:

Among the items federal agents were searching for in Alaska legislative offices this week are hats or garments labeled “Corrupt Bastards Club” or “Corrupt Bastards Caucus,” according to the search warrant.
(We're saying it.)

It's still not quite clear to me how Donny Olson got mixed up in all this but it sure provides a great local angle. Donny called us this morning and released a statement, noting the obvious, namely that he has never voted with VECO or worked to support them. However, he has the potential to be Alaska's Richard Jefferson, the Democratic congressman who got nailed for the "cold cash" he took and thus prevented the Democrats from capitalizing as fully as they could have on the Abramoff issue.

I though this was a great picture in ADN

Where does this all stop? How many more raids are coming? Is the governor's office next? Ted Stevens, perhaps? What, exactly is being investigated, anyway?

Between the March oil spill, the Prudhoe Bay shutdown, the Exxon re-opener, and now this, is the relationship between oil (and oil companies) and the government of Alaska undergoing a dramatic shift? Is this the end of an era?

I also think that lawmakers are going to be wanting to stay low for a little while (too bad it's a campaign season). So I'm pretty sure the 3rd special session is dead in the water, which renders my earlier question moot.

An Alaskan Abroad has some excellent grist for the rumour mill.

So many tantalizing possibilities and unknown futures...