31 January 2007

Max Gruenberg

I have never met Anchorage representative Max Gruenberg but I have interviewed him over the phone once or twice and he strikes me as a friendly person and a thoughtful lawmaker.

But he might do well to take that famous piece of advice of heart, "'Tis better to be silent and thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt."

If you listen to last Wednesday's confirmation hearing of H. Connor Thomas to the Select Committee on Legislative Ethics (tough to link to online but you can find it at Gavel to Gavel), you'll hear him say something to the effect of, "I see you're the president of the Nome Kennel Club. What kind of dog do you have?" Then you'll hear Connor respond, "Um..., which one? I've got dozens. I'm a musher." To which Gruenberg (as I hear it) offers a bit of an embarrassed silence and a muttered response, not quite realizing that in rural Alaska "kennel clubs" are not the Westminster type but the mushing type.

Then, if you listen to the floor debate on the executive clemency bill, you'll hear him rise and extol the nation's checks and balances system and invoke the famous Marbury v. Madison case that established judicial review. A fine thought but his interpretation of the case is factually incorrect and he appears to acknowledge it himself when he slows down in the middle, stutters, and starts couching his statements with "I think."

I respect every lawmaker in Juneau because they're willing to step forward, throw their hat into the public ring (so to speak), and ostensibly serve Alaskans. But it can be so easy to poke fun at them.

(Of course, the "better to be thought a fool" advice could equally apply to me and this blog.)

29 January 2007

The National News Hits Home

It's easy to read the news from Washington D.C. and wonder how it could possibly affect any of us way out here. For instance, how could the new Democratic Congress's decision to fund the government through a continuing resolution, rather than passing individual spending bills, affect me?

Then you read something like this:

Congressional budget delays have put several major research projects at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in limbo.

Projects facing uncertain futures include a new $98 million arctic research vessel and efforts related to the upcoming International Polar Year.

"We're on the verge of missing out on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of International Polar Year," said Buck Sharpton, UAF vice chancellor of research.

The outgoing Republican-led Congress failed to approve a budget for the current fiscal year for anything but defense and homeland security. A stopgap measure is keeping budgets for most federal agencies at last year's levels.

As well, I was speaking with the CEO of our local Indian Health Service-funded hospital recently and he was explaining how when a CR is in place, the government disburses the money only on a month-to-month basis. That makes it difficult for the hospital to stay liquid and get the money together for purchases that stretch across several months.

Such is the real-world impact of decisions made on a political level for political reasons.

25 January 2007

$150 Million Memo

Further to yesterday's post, I hope you read Karen Rehfeld's budget-cuts memo and realize how outrageous this budget-cutting zeal is.

Basically, Sarah Palin wants to have it both ways. On the one hand, it wants to "hold harmless" the politically popular programs she got elected on - municipal revenue-sharing, PERS/TRS help, longevity bonus, education funding. On the other hand, she wants to make a statement as a "fiscal conservative" and cut spending. But her pool of spending to cut is slashed in half by her promises, which means the cuts go extra deep.

As always happens with budget cuts, the programs that are going to get the ax are the ones that don't have vocal political constituencies (PERS/TRS and revenue-sharing have the AML, education has parents, etc.) but are important to the state nonetheless. Who's going to stand up and say we shouldn't cut juvenile justice and have over-crowded detention facilities? Who's going to say we need more (and better paid) VPSOs, not fewer? Who's going to say rural airports need better lighting and paving?

I realize a lot of lawmakers are acquiescing to Governor Palin's enormous popularity and momentum but I sure hope someone starts standing up soon and calling this the travesty that it is.

24 January 2007

$150 Million

The more I think about the $150 million that the Palin administration wants to cut from the operating budget, the more I think it makes little to no sense. It's not a way to strengthen the state but to weaken it.

The reason it doesn't make sense is that it's an entirely arbitrary figure that has no basis in reality. Someone just picked the figure because it sounded good and now the administration is busy asking its departments where they can cut funding that will total $150 million. Budget-cutting for budget-cutting's sake does not make any sense to me at all.

Cutting the operating budget is only going to weaken the state. Speaking from a rural perspective, there is very little fat in the budget to trim - there aren't enough Troopers or VPSOs; school districts don't have enough money; the prisons are overflowing; there's not enough job-training money; the list goes on and on. And the answer to these problems is to cut funding even further?

I agree that there is always administrative fat to be cut and when an organization spends several billion dollars a year, some of it will be wasted. And I have no problem cutting any of that. I also realize that the budget is balanced on a fairly high level of the price of oil. But the response to that shouldn't be to immediately cut spending. The response should be to take a "big picture" look at the state's finances on both the spending and the income side, start some long-term planning (a fiscal plan anyone?), and then decide what needs to be done.

An immediate cut to spending essentially amounts to putting the cart before the horse. If a thorough review of the state's finances reveals too much spending (or not enough income), then it makes sense to consider what steps are next, including spending cuts but also, to use a common euphemism, "revenue enhancers." That's likely to spark a large debate but a debate worth having.

But the Palin administration is short-circuiting that debate and settling on budget cuts as the answer, with little rationale and apparently to prove her fiscally-conservative credentials.

What is most surprising is that so many members of the state legislature are going along with this goal, not apparently realizing it is an arbitrary number, set to accomplish a political (not policy) goal, that will only damage Alaskans more.

23 January 2007

The False Goal of Bipartisanship

On the surface, the prospects of bipartisan cooperation in Juneau this legislative session appear very bright:

  • There's a bipartisan coalition in the Senate that's sharing power;
  • The governor campaigned on a pledge to unite Alaskans and bring people together - that presumably includes the 25 members of the legislature who aren't Republicans;
  • In conversations with Ralph Samuels and Beth Kerttula, both swear up and down that they are great friends and get along so well ("famously" to use a word Samuels used more than once in conversation with me);
  • There's apparently some sort of national trend towards bipartisanship.
But it does strike me that people always say this kind of thing at the beginning of a legislative session.

Perhaps bipartisanship is a false goal anyway. The reason there are parties in the first place is that people disagree on how best to approach policy problems. It seems unreasonable to think they could reconcile those differences just because they're in the same legislative hall.

Maybe what we should really shoot for is honest and open discussion that isn't colored by the distorting lenses of partisanship. Rather than attacking and distorting an opponents' argument because they're of an opposite party, I'd be happy if lawmakers honestly and intentionally engaged one another, listened to what the other had say (rather than dismissing it out of hand if it doesn't jive what they think), and then come to the best solution. That solution might not be bipartisan and some people might disagree with the outcome but it'd be a step in the right direction.

Process determines product and an honest and open process produces the best product. That's what I want in Juneau this year.

22 January 2007

Laws? Who needs 'em?

Some members of the legislative leadership have been a bit skeptical that any kind of ethics reform will actually achieve what the public is apparently "demanding." The argument of people like John Harris and Lyda Green essentially boils down to, "Gee, if a person is inclined to break the law in the first place, then no tightening of those rules is going to make them less inclined to break the law and, say, accept a bribe."

That's probably true. But if you take continue to follow this line of argument, it seems that you'd have to conclude that laws are pretty useless on the whole: if a person is going to murder someone, what's the point of having a law against murder?

The point is that laws are the codification of a society's morality. If we believe an action is wrong, we should put it into law that it is wrong. Then we should enforce that law and punish those who violate it. It's the way our system works.

19 January 2007

Where's the cake?

I've written in previous posts that I was a bit dismayed by the lack of specifics in Governor Palin's State of the State address. To wit:

I've included in my budget for support of communities 48 million dollars. That includes the need to balance the high cost of fuel. That is why we also fully fund Power Cost Equalization. The state will also take care of the unexpected PERS and TRS increase that communities face this year.
This is all I heard about revenue-sharing, a fairly important issue to rural Alaska. And yet this brief mention raises more questions than it answers.
  • How is the $48 million going to be distributed? On a per capita basis? Or will there a minimum threshold amount that all communities receive? This is a huge policy decision because it determines if the money goes mostly to property-tax rich urban Alaska or sales-tax poor rural Alaska. (Incidentally, I never heard this question answered on the campaign trail either.)
  • What percentage of the $48 million is meant to cover the high cost of fuel? Is this mostly a fuel assistance program or is actually a program that will put money in the hands of communities to pay public safety officers, insure buildings, and so on?
  • Given the appropriation by the legislature last year into the Power Cost Equalization endowment fund, isn't the promise to fully fund PCE essentially an empty one since the money's already there?
I want to like Governor Palin and there were many parts of her speech I liked. But I can't help but think of all the unanswered questions she raised.

As I heard someone else say of the SotS - "There was lots of frosting but I'm still looking for the cake."

18 January 2007


A fine example of equivocation - and the fallacious argument that results therefrom - in the News-Miner:

Imagine you’ve gone through lengthy discussions with some people who want to change the way the government they represent taxes your business. You tell them you don’t like the final result but tell yourself that the new tax system is what it is. You leave the table and return to the details of running your business.

And then one day the phone rings.

“Listen, we don’t think that tax system we came up with is all that hot. Oh, we know we told you we were done and that it hasn’t really been in place for very long. And we know we don’t really know if it will work out well for us or not, but we just don’t like it. And we want to change it.”

An oversimplified parallel to the efforts to overhaul last year’s overhaul of Alaska’s oil tax system? Hardly.

Yet that’s what two Democratic legislators propose in their legislation to revamp last year’s petroleum profits tax, an issue that most thought was settled after months of contentious work by the Legislature, of negotiations with then-Gov. Frank Murkowski, and of trying to divine the intentions of the oil industry leaders who came to express their views.

They equivocate with "some people" in the first sentence and "two Democratic legislators" in the last paragraph I've posted. Yes, it's true that oil companies did consult with some people - the majority (Republican) members of the House and Senate. The two Democratic lawmakers (and numerous others) tried to raise the issues they are raising now but were shut out and out-voted.

The wonder and joy of democracy - but also the great frustration for an oil company - is that there are dozens of voices competing to be heard and devise a solution to a problem. If some of those voices want to keep raising their alternate view, it should be welcomed and heard, not shut out. That's how the system works.

So, yes, the News-Miner argument is not only "oversimplified," it's just downright fallacious.

An answer to my own question

The other day I wanted to know how Governor Palin is going to cut $150 million from the operating budget and still reinstate the longevity bonus, revenue-sharing, and so forth.

It occurred to me today that she could roll revenue-sharing at least into the capital budget (like it was last year) and then still be able to cut the operating budget. As an added bonus, she could blame the size of the capital budget on lawmakers since everyone knows they like to add pet projects for their districts.

Just a thought.

17 January 2007

Palin's Ruminations

Some thoughts on Governor Palin's State of the State:

  • Nothing unexpected in the sections on ethics and the natural gas pipeline, really. It was refreshing to hear her say that she'd share credit for an ethics bill and that it should apply to all branches of government.
  • I thought the sections on the important rural Alaskan issues - substance abuse, violence, revenue-sharing, the longevity bonus, PERS/TRS, public safety, and so on - got little more than a pro forma passing mention. I know you can only fit so much in a speech but I would have listened for another ten minutes to hear more about these topics.
  • I was surprised - and pleased - by how she highlighted the need to pass the education funding bill early in the session so school districts can plan better. I know a lot of districts will appreciate that. It's just an idea that makes sense. Now if only she can convince lawmakers to go along.
  • One minor annoyance: the state wants to build a natural gas pipeline, not a "gasline." That word does not exist in any dictionary I've checked. And now it's going to be codified in Alaska law in the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act.
  • One funny moment: I heard her say: "The primary focus of our long-term energy plan can be summed up in three words: the natural gas pipeline." That reminds me of Dan Quayle's (in)famous line, "There's one word that sums up the responsibility of the vice-president and that one word is: to be prepared." Sarah's not quite as bad but it's almost as funny.
  • Finally, where's the $150 million she wants to cut going to come from? All I heard about was spending increases. $150 million in cuts has the potential to do a lot of damage. Let's start talking about it now.
That's all (for now).

Sayin' Somethin'

So far, I've been fairly impressed by Governor Palin. She appears to be appointing people on the basis of competence, not politics. She's visited rural Alaska. She's undone some last-minute Murkowski damage.

But I still haven't heard much from her on what she wants to accomplish or what her term will look like. During the campaign, I was one of many people who noted that she wasn't really giving us any specifics and appeared to prefer speaking in broad platitudes rather than specifics that might - gasp! - be "used to divide Alaskans."

Her chance to change that is tonight in her State of the State address. My hope for tonight is that she realizes that she is now in a safe position and can feel free to tell us exactly what she wants to do. Of course, there are going to be some people who disagree with her, perhaps even a majority of people. But she's earned the political capital and now is the time to put it to work doing what she wants to.

In particular, I'd like to hear her ideas on community revenue-sharing (which communities get it? how much? is it per capita or is there a base amount?), restoring the longevity bonus (who gets it? how do we pay for it?), how to deal with PERS/TRS (how big is the hole?), fuel prices in rural Alaska, and so on. I'm also interested in where she's going to find the $150 million dollars she wants to cut from the operating budget. And what about the declining price of oil? What does that mean for the state?

What I don't want to hear is more platitudes about uniting Alaskans, going back to the constitution, and more of the same that I heard during the campaign.

Given the lovefest going on in Juneau right now, with all the lawmakers so happy that Frank is finally gone and willing to give anyone a chance, I'm pretty sure Sarah could walk in, repeat her platitudes, and they'd stomp and cheer just the same.

Point MacKenzie

When I was speaking with Big Lake Representative Mark Neuman last week about moving the legislative hall, he said the site he had in mind for a new one was Point MacKenzie. He noted the amount of land (1000 acres), room for an airport, and plenty of space to develop new homes and businesses to support the legislature's staff.

Now I read the Mat-Su Assembly thinks Point MacKenzie would be a great spot for the mega-prison.

I suppose it would shorten the commute for guys like Tom Anderson.

15 January 2007

The Power of Symbolism

My state senator, Don Olson, has pre-filed a bill that mandates a 99-year sentence for a police officer who commits murder while on duty. It's known as the "Sonya Ivanoff Law," in memory of the young Unalakleet woman who was murdered in 2003 by on-duty Nome police officer Matthew Owens. Owens was convicted in 2005 and sentenced - at the judge's discretion - to 99 years for the murder.

Several native organizations in Nome proposed the idea when they realized the law mandates a 99-year sentence for people who kill police officers but not vice versa. They thought it a fitting tribute to Ivanoff's life and had a resolution passed at AFN in support of the measure. Then they got Olson to introduce the measure.

Before I go any further, I'd like to say this is an admirable bill. I have no personal connection to Sonya Ivanoff but if her family thinks it's a fitting tribute, then I say let's go for it. I have some general concern about sentencing guidelines, of course, but nothing major.

But it is also an example of the overwhelming power of symbolism in politics. Let's be serious for a moment - Owens was the first on-duty police officer convicted of first-degree murder in the state. Given the high-profile of that trial, I imagine many police officers are going to think twice before doing likewise. Furthermore, should any police officer decide to do the same thing, it will likely be such a pre-meditated crime that the judge will impose the 99-year sentence regardless of what the law says.

My fear is that a lot of people are going to spend a lot of energy this legislative term on a bill that will likely have little effect on Alaskan society and is simply a symbolic gesture. It's clearly an important to many people in this region but it's symbolic nonetheless.

It's fine for family members and leaders in this region to spend that effort - if you've found a cause you believe in, then go for it - but I'm concerned it will take time away from Senator Olson's other responsibilities. And if this legislation passes (as I expect it will) and if I interview Senator Olson at the end of the term and ask him what his major accomplishments for the term were and he cites this as one example, I won't exactly be disappointed but I will have a passing thought about other things that could have been accomplished.

Perhaps the best thing would be if the bill passes quickly and we can all move on.

Keep it

The ADN gets around to considering an issue I raised a while back:

What if Alaska cannot sell the state jet for as much as it still owes the bank on the 2005 lease? The highest bid so far has been about $2 million, but the state owes $2.5 million.

But maybe Alaskans would decide they don't want to pay $500,000 just to spite former Gov. Murkowski. In which case, they could tell the new governor to keep the plane, use it only for state trooper, prisoner transport and real emergencies, and not worry about it anymore.

The ADN's other possible "solution" - and I hope this is tongue-in-cheek - is to have Alaskans raise the funds to cover the difference, through bake sales, car washes, and the like.

Last time I checked, the government already has a good way of raising money from its citizens; it's called taxes.

Too bad there's no way to impose taxes on specific people. Then the state could just send Frank the bill.

"An Unlikely Community"

I was struck by this description of Nome in the News-Miner:

Nome is an unlikely town. Located along an obscure beach on the Seward Peninsula that is prone to violent storms, the city lacks a natural harbor, the adjacent sea is frozen for much of the year and the surrounding land is treeless tundra....

He does tell us that:

“By 1910 the struggle for survival among Alaska’s gold-rush boomtowns had ended. Skagway had put Dyea out of business, for example, and while Teller, Candle, and Council City would survive on the Seward Peninsula, they would not prosper. This was not what many observers might have expected. Port Clarence, near Teller, had a natural harbor, while Nome’s inadequate facilities would not be significantly improved until after 1920 — and they would remain inadequate after that. Council was surrounded by spruce trees, useful for building; the Nome region was treeless. Nevertheless, even as early as 1904 all conceded that Nome was the Seward Peninsula’s chief city. Three years later it could be said without contradiction that Nome was the peninsula’s metropolis.”

As a Weather Service forecaster once noted to me, "I sure wish they'd found gold a bit further down the coast. Then we wouldn't get all these marine weather systems that bring constantly cloudy weather in the summer!"

13 January 2007

Sadly familiar

A sadly familiar story from across the continent:

Just seven years into the much-heralded creation of Canada's third territory, Nunavut is racked by violence, with rates of homicide, assault, robbery, rape and suicide stunningly above the national average. On Thursday, just days after the bodies were removed from the snowy street in Cambridge Bay, two young Inuit mothers hanged themselves within hours of each other in the capital, Iqaluit.

In a final report on the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement released last April, former B.C. Supreme Court justice Thomas Berger wrote that Nunavut was facing “a moment of crisis.” And he blasted the territory's education system, its high-school dropout rates, illiteracy rates and rates of smoking, suicide and sexually transmitted diseases.

Violence and other serious social ills are robbing Nunavut of a many of its young people, especially those with Inuit backgrounds. Much of the rage and despair have been fuelled by chronic alcohol and drug abuse. In last weekend's shooting, friends and relatives of those involved said, most, if not all, were either drunk or high when the confrontation occurred around 3 a.m.“Nunavut seems to lead in all fronts, whether it be suicides or whether it be violence against women, it seems we're at the top for the rest of Canada,” said Leona Aglukkaq, Nunavut's frustrated Minister of Health and Social Services. The territory has a growing population of about 30,000, but unemployment, poverty and family violence are rampant.

Perhaps the only surprising thing is that the author seems surprised by the statistics.

12 January 2007

Moving the capital II

I was surprised at the comments I received to my last post about moving the capital (of course, I'm surprised - and deeply gratified - every time you take a moment to comment on my ideas). One comment noted I had become a "witless pawn in spreading that Valley propaganda."

For the record, I did ask Beth Kerttula about this bill, though she hadn't returned my call by the time I wrote that last post. Here's what she had to say:

"Fairbanks has the university, Anchorage has the center of commerce, Southeast has the capital. It would really be an imbalance to move the capital from Juneau. Moreover, it would quite literally destroy my hometown. You need to have the capital balanced. Our tradition is that the capital is in Juneau and I think that the capital should stay in Juneau."
I really liked speaking with Beth Kerttula and found her genuine in a way that not many politicians are. That being said, this was hardly convincing. Leaving aside G.K. Chesterton's, "Tradition is the democracy of the dead," I wonder where rural/bush/non-road-system Alaska fits in this careful balance she proposes. As the cultural center? As an economic boost for Southcentral? It's hard for me to have pity on Southeast when the problems that are forecast from a capital move - economic depression, population loss - are already clearly in evidence in my own region.

I may be a pawn but I don't think I'm completely witless.

Spinning out of control

Bethel is spinning out of control:

A woman found beaten to death in a downtown home in Bethel on Wednesday morning became the third person found slain since early December in the Southwest Alaska community.
What is the matter? I'm sticking with my earlier theory:

11 January 2007

Mike Tyson comes to Bethel

This from the Delta Discovery:

Assault in the 2nd Degree: On December 30, 2006, at approximately 3:26am, the Bethel Police Department received a 911 call from John Paul Pitka (age 35, of Toksook Bay). Pitka requested medics and an officer, because his ear had been bitten off in a fight. Pitka identified his assailant as Deric Andrew (age 22, of Bethel). After further investigation Deric Andrew was later located and interviewed at his residence. Deric Andrew was subsequently arrested and remanded to YKCC on the charge of Assault in the 2nd degree. Pitka was later transported to Anchorage due to the nature and severity of his injuries. Alcohol was a factor in this incident.
What is happening to Bethel?

10 January 2007

Moving the capital

I had never given much consideration to the issue of moving the state capitol until I spoke with Rep. Mark Neuman yesterday, who's pre-filed legislation to build a new legislative hall. The key is any community over 30,000 can bid on building the hall, which means the legislature could move from Juneau. That wouldn't technically be moving the capital but I imagine it would be fairly devastating to Juneau anyway.

In general, when it comes to things I learned in grade school, I like to uphold the status quo. Just as I think Pluto should still be a planet because I learned there were nine planets way back when, I think Juneau should remain Alaska's capital because that's what I was forced to learn when I had to memorize all 50 capitals.

I don't need anyone to convince me, however, this argument is not exactly one that holds water. The funny thing is that as I was listening to Neuman, he had me convinced. I guess there's a desperate need for a more up-to-date legislative hall. And if Alaska needs to build a new one, why not build one closer to where the people live?

The most powerful argument I heard from Neuman is that it would allow more children a chance to see the legislature in action. Whenever I see a legislative body in action, I am always interested and engaged and my cynicism about politics falls away, at least for a brief while. The problem with politics today is that the media doesn't create any heroes or role models. So no one wants to become a politician and we end up with less than superior people making laws. I know many children would be bored and some would fall asleep but the idea that more people could be involved with the legislative process from a younger age is intensely appealing to me.

(The argument that a more centrally located capital would allow more people to testify before the legislature is probably true but I think people who want to testify will always find a way and committee chairs always have a way of cutting off testimony anyway.)

Yes, moving the legislative hall would hurt Southeast but I'm sure they could find ways to cope. Western Alaskans have been dealing with economic depression for generations.

Of course, in a day of declining school budgets and greater regimentation, would any teacher have the creativity to take a field trip to the new capital?

09 January 2007

An encapsulating quotation

I'm a bit late getting to this but... if there was ever a better summary of Frank Murkowski's term as governor than the one he has provided, I haven't found it:

"I think my critics failed to appreciate my style of management," said Murkowski. "I came in here to make a change, make a difference, not build consensus."
The problem with this philosophy, of course, is that consensus-building is a necessary first step to making "a change" and "a difference." When there are 60 other people (at least) who have a constitutional say in what you do, building consensus is absolutely critical. If that fails, everything else fails as well.

The Murkowski years in a nutshell.

Stunning statistics

Living in rural Alaska and working in the news business, I frequently come across remarkable and stunning statistics about life in this region of the state - astronomically high rates of suicide and poverty, for instance, and depressingly low rates of education and health care. This happens so frequently it is easy to forget the significance of those numbers.

But sometimes perspective wakes me up:

One thing is for sure: New Stuyahok is suffering, with five alcohol-related deaths in one year. That's one for every 110 residents. If Anchorage faced a similar plague, alcohol would have killed nearly 2,500 people last year.
That's nothing short of stunning - disastrously so.

Taking the Lead

Anchorage mayor Mark Begich has taken what strikes me as an unusual step:

In hopes of reversing what he calls a short-sided push to ban drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Mayor Mark Begich has invited the U.S. congressman who authored the legislation to take a tour of the land in question.
Does it strike you as odd that the mayor of Anchorage would be taking the lead on an ANWR-related issue? Shouldn't this be a move that's coming from, say, the governor's office or perhaps a member of the Congressional delegation?

(If you actually read the letter, the brunt of it is to tell Markey he's wrong, not to invite him to ANWR. That's a secondary issue, which KTUU has chosen to trumpet.)

The only way this makes sense to me is if Mayor Begich is trying to raise his profile on statewide issues. Hmmm... now why would he want to do that?

08 January 2007

Friends close and enemies closer?

(This is not - unfortunately - any brilliant insight of mine but one I've borrowed from a conversation earlier today.)

You'll recall, of course, that Frank Murkowski appointed Sarah Palin to the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission early in his term. Palin had campaigned on his behalf after finishing second in the lieutenant-governor's Republican primary.

The position gave Palin access to information that ultimately led her to unmask Randy Ruedrich's corruption. That, in turn, gave her a statewide profile which she was able to parlay into a run for the governorship in 2006, in which she defeated (among others) none other than the man who appointed her to the AOGCC in the first place.

Now is Palin doing the same thing by appointing John Binkley to the Alaska Railroad Board of Directors? I understand that you should keep your friends close and enemies closer and I'm all in favor of appointing qualified people to state jobs. But what if Curt Menard lets slip some bit of Palin's Mat-Su history that's better left unsaid? Or what if Binkley uncovers some bits of Palin administration corruption?

I doubt history will repeat itself in this situation but it would be delightfully ironic if it did.

05 January 2007

When the process fails

Further indication that following an established process might not always produce the best results:

The DEC received 21 public comments from Nome residents, the Northern Alaska Environmental Center and AGC.

Nome residents' main concerns were over dust kicked up from increased truck traffic, as AGC proposes to haul ore from Big Hurrah to the Rock Creek mill facility 24/7 and year-round at 90-minute intervals. The DEC responded that it has no regulatory authority to through the air quality permit to include permit conditions to control dust on the road between Rock Creek and Big Hurrah because the road is open to the public. "The Department has been told by the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities that they have funding in the short term to provide dust control on the state maintained roads,"says the DEC document to respond to comments.

"The Department also suggests to members of the public concerned about dust from the state maintained roads that they work with DOT employees and their state legislators to ensure DOTPF has adequate funding to provide dust control or to request paving or other measures that may be necessary," says the response to the dust comment.

DEC did not answer the public's question as to how dust will be monitored.

In other words, "Sure you might have a problem, but it's not our problem." And not only is not their problem, it's not a problem of any agency involved in the permitting process.

Dylan Thomas redux

I've compared now-former Governor Frank Murkowski to the well-known Dylan Thomas poem before:

Do not go gentle into that good night
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light
But this really takes the cake: www.frankmurkowski.com.

The press release today quotes Jim Clark:
“It is important that the accomplishments of the Murkowski administration be detailed and available for Alaskans to study, know and understand over the coming years,” said Jim Clark, Murkowski’s chief of staff during the four-year term. “We were convinced that the most permanent way to ensure ready access to this information was to put it on the internet, where it is available to the world.
To quote Charlie Brown: good grief!

Nomeite makes it big!

Former Nomeite Patricia Cochran is published in the BBC:

With thinner sea ice arriving later and leaving earlier in the year, coastal communities are experiencing more intensified storms with larger waves than they have ever experienced.

This threat is being compounded by the loss of permafrost which has kept river banks from eroding too quickly.

The waves are larger because there is no sea ice to diminish their intensity, slamming against the west and northern shores of Alaska, causing severe storm driven coastal erosion.

It has become so serious that several coastal villages are now actively trying to figure out where to move entire communities.

While the world's politicians and media focus their attention on the big picture of agreeing the best way to curb global climate change, we are left to pick up the pieces from wasted years of inaction.

Nothing new for us, of course, but the more this message makes it a wider audience the better.

04 January 2007

A wee bit ridiculous

The move by Earthworks to begin a Pebble boycott strikes me as a bit premature:

Jewelers are being asked to boycott gold from a huge open pit mine proposed for Alaska that many Alaska Natives fear will ruin their way of life.

An ad campaign launched this week in National Jeweler, an industry news tabloid, is designed to educate jewelers about the Pebble Mine project in the Bristol Bay watershed, home to the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world.

For a mine that has not even entered the permitting process, that is facing distinct opposition from some powerful political forces, and doesn't even really have a well-defined mine plan, it strikes me as a little odd to skip over that process entirely (however flawed it may be) and conclude that any gold from Pebble (should, in fact, any be poured) would be worth boycotting. What if the permitting process produces a mine that protects Bristol Bay (perhaps not feasible but still...)? Or what if the process collapses and the mine goes nowhere.

Either way, it seems like 10 or 20 thousand dollars that could be better spent.

(I know I just wrote that dissidents should use whatever tools are at their disposal but they should at least do a little cost-benefit analysis first.)

03 January 2007

Process not product?

Former House speaker Gail Phillips thinks Alaskans should just "trust the process" on the Pebble prospect and let state agencies do their job:

One thing I have learned through my experiences is the importance of established public processes.

Alaskans should be proud of the environmental permitting processes we have in place -- processes that ensure protection of our valuable fisheries, wildlife and subsistence resources.
It's a fair point and a good one but she fails to consider one crucial point - what if the process is stacked and biased to begin with?

It's a hard point to prove but I think a compelling argument can be made that in many instances, it's relatively easy for folks with power to subvert and/or take over an allegedly fair and impartial public process.

For instance, what happens when a mining company uses its extensive financial resources to assemble hundreds of pages of supporting documents that "prove" the project is environmentally responsible? The company has the money to hire all sorts of environmental experts and assemble reams of data but data can prove anything ("lies, damned lies, and statistics") and there's always an expert to say something.

Or what happens when a company manages to use its extensive financial resources to assemble lots of supporting testimony during the public comment period from businesses that stand to benefit from the project?

Or what happens when a company can hire someone to manage the permitting process, thus knowing when deadlines are for the process, ensuring as much as is favorable and as little as is harmful happens.

I'd be a lot more willing to buy the argument that we should rely on the process to protect us if everyone equally knew the scope of the process, had equal standing, and equal knowledge. But that so rarely happens because the relative balance of power (often dependent on financial resources) affects the fairness of the process and the product the process produces. Thus, dissidents can be legitimately forced to look outside the process at times and use whatever tools may be at their disposal.

Nothing like a little impartial reporting

Ryan Sanders is facing two murder counts stemming from an event on New Year's Eve. He's only made one court appearance but KTUU has already tried and convicted him, at least based on this headline on their website: "New Year's Day killer arraigned." While the story is reasonably impartial, there's nothing in that headline qualifying the fact that Sanders has not, in fact, been proven in court to be a killer.

This kind of coverage is generally typical of KTUU, I've found, intensely sympathetic to the victim and using the worst pictures of the accused to portray them in the worst light possible. It might get ratings but it sure isn't very helpful from a news perspective.

All of this is not to say that Sanders is not guilty - the evidence does seem overwhelming. But what's the point of having a "guilty until proven innocent" presumption and a court system if people can just get tried in the news media the day after their alleged crime?

02 January 2007


I was doing an interview for a story today and the person mentioned the idea of "stresses" in a persons life. For instance, darkness, alcohol, or isolation might be environmental stresses that together lead a depressed person to commit suicide.

I bring the idea up because I think it might help explain some of what is going on in southwest Alaska, whether it's snowmachine bandits or a cab-driver shot at point-blank range in Bethel.

Life has never been easy in rural Alaska, at any time or for any generation. But there are increasing stresses on the lifestyle in this region. Consider some of them:

  • The cost of electricity is going through the roof, as is the cost of heating oil, gas, and so forth.
  • Those rising costs make the cost of other necessities, like groceries, a lot higher as well.
  • The elimination of revenue-sharing has made cities more dependent on property taxes or sales taxes, which further squeezes citizens.
  • The weather is distinctly changing and that's changing lifestyles as well. Elders and others recognize changes in migration patterns and sea ice and that affects the foundations of a way of life.
  • Stronger storms are leading to increased erosion in a lot of communities.
  • There's a sense (though this is not new) that rural Alaska might be politically powerless, closing off a potential route to help address some of these problems.
The list, of course, could go on and on. My point is that as the stresses on the rural lifestyle increase, one response might be lash out in what appears to be senseless and inexplicable violence. Life is getting very difficult and the actions of people under pressure are always difficult to predict or explain.