27 February 2007

The Effect of Budget Cuts

Apparently, McClatchey, the company that owns the ADN, isn't so much interested in reporting on all the news that's important to Alaskans. A while back, I understand they cut funding for their Washington, D.C. reporter. I heard they had one guy covering Idaho and Alaska issues in Washington but I haven't seen any articles.

That means with Sarah Palin in D.C., explaining probably the most important piece of legislation in her young term, the state's paper of record is silent on what she's up to. Unless someone sees something I don't in the paper, there's nothing about her meeting with the FERC chairman (even though the governor's office conveniently issued a press release on it) or about the news that one of the inducements is a half-billion dollars up front from the state.

(Where's that money going to come from? Surpluses are drying up, we are told, and there's a need to cut more spending. The governor wants to spend a half-billion this year on helping communities with PERS and TRS increases. Those rate increases aren't going away so the pressure for that half-billion isn't either. Would you trade PERS/TRS for a half-billion dollars down on a pipeline? Or maybe it should come from the Permanent Fund? Or the CBR?)

The governor is having a press conference on her trip tomorrow. I'm sure the ADN will call in and have a big long story on Thursday but it strikes me as a little too little and a little too late.

26 February 2007

"Best Hope"?

The chairman of FERC apparently thinks pretty highly of Sarah Palin:

Chairman Joseph Kelliher said the Palin plan represents - quote - the best hope for building a pipeline to bring Alaska's vast natural gas resources to the energy-consuming lower 48 states.
It occurs to me that any natural gas pipeline deal has to go through the state's executive branch and thus the governor, which makes Palin the "only hope." Logically, she's the "best hope" but this doesn't tell us anything profound or useful.

The latter half of the statement seems a bit less enthusiastic:
The Commission looks forward to her efforts on the Alaska gasline being successful and we stand ready to help to the extent we can.
Does that strike anyone as tepid praise at best? "To the extent we can"? How about something like "we'll move heaven and earth to make this happen" or "everything in our power"?

(And for the love of God, "gasline" is NOT a word!)

The language just reached out and grabbed me when I read this. Maybe not you, though.

Striking Stamp

This really is quite a striking picture:

Too bad fewer and fewer people are going to see it as stamps prices continue to rise.

23 February 2007

The Inducements

I commented last week that Governor Palin seemed to be putting the cart before the horse by telling us about the requirements before the inducements of her new Alaska Gasline Inducement Act.

Now we hear about the inducements. One caught my eye:

The AGIA requires that state gasline permits and authorizations be expedited. It makes no sense to push so hard for a gasline, only to have the project stalled in the regulatory process with complicated and uncoordinated state and federal permitting processes.
It caught my eye because those pesky regulatory processes have reared their heads in Nome recently with our own Rock Creek mine. Good forbid we should have a "complicated" process that exists to, you know, protect our environment and way of life. Hate for that to get in the way.

The workforce development "inducement" seems uncontroversial. Having the state put "skin in the game" could be a bit more controversial (the debate on this matter kind of got overshadowed by the tax freeze debate last year but some I think I heard some lawmakers express concern about it). I wonder, though, if these inducements are enough for any company to want to take this project on. That, I suppose, is the 64-thousand dollar question.

On another note, ain't it convenient that the Palin Administration has to release its list of 150-million dollars in cuts by Thursday? Then, conveniently enough, AIGA arrives on Friday to sweep all that nasty news of budget cuts off the front pages. Nothing like controlling that news flow as much as is humanly possible.

22 February 2007

A response to my critics

I'm always grateful to those of you who take the time to comment on my writings. It only seems fair that I respond to some of your thoughts.

I took some flak for criticizing Don Young's speech on Iraq. I agree it's a non-binding resolution; regardless, I assume that his comments were reflective of his opinion on the issue. If so, my point was that they should be accurate and well-reasoned, as befits such a serious issue. Misquoting people, mis-pronouncing words, and more may be Don Young's style but they do a disservice to the people he represents. And do you really think that people he disagrees with should be hanged?

I was criticized for criticizing Sarah Palin's non-decision and confusion on where the Habitat Division should be located in state government. I respect the comments in this case quite a bit but I think this is an important issue, it came up during the campaign so we should expect Sarah Palin to have made up her mind on the matter, and it's a fairly straight-forward yes-or-no issue. I just thought the confusion was an example of trying to have it as many ways as possible at once and I just wish she'd tell us what she thinks for once.

I was also told in the same comments that I shouldn't expect Sarah to respond to my every beck and call for an interview. I agree with that (though I've always wished the social power of journalists was stronger) but I think I'm generally frustrated with Palin because I sense she has been generally keeping herself cloistered from the press. All I want to do is help her spread her message to the masses but when she only releases news by press release, it's awfully hard to do that. Instead, I just get frustrated.

Speaking of getting frustrated, a potentially pre-emptive response: I titled my post on the ADN's Senior Care story "Shoddy Reporting" when I spent most of my time talking about the Palin administration's media campaign. I still think the reporting could have been more far-reaching but I perhaps should have titled it "Normal Reporting" (or not made any reference to the reporting) since I can't expect every reporter to be aware of every issue in the state since I certainly am not.

When I posted the new lawyer's comments on a night in Nome, one person said it wasn't fair to do so. I ultimately agreed, after Wes asked me to take them down. I did so because they weren't my words and they had made their way around town anyway.

Other comments thought that Wes might have had some truth to his thoughts. I hope I never implied otherwise because I think in some ways Wes was honestly describing what he has seen and what I have seen. What I hope Wes learns, however, is that there is so much more to Nome than meets his eye. I hope he hasn't judged Nome based on that one experience.

Thanks, as always, for reading and commenting. Mine are just the musings of an interested observer but I'm deeply gratified when you take them seriously and keep the conversation going, even (and especially) if you are offended or disagree.

Rules Committee Hold-Up

It's amazing what you can find when you go clicking through BASIS.

For instance, consider this: there are apparently no bills flowing through the Senate Rules Committee. Senate Bill 45, the Sonya Ivanoff Law, which I have been following closely from a professional angle floated through its first two committees but has now been stuck in Rules since February 12th. The much-touted ethics legislation has been stuck there as long. It just strikes me as odd that while the House is passing laws left and right, the Senate has hardly voted on anything.

I don't know what John Cowdery is up to but that has never stopped me from a little blatant speculation (or b.s. as you might call it) with varying degrees of seriousness:

  • Cowdery is sick and can't have a meeting of the committee. Nope, he was at a Senate HESS Committee meeting yesterday and he surely has a vice-chair.
  • Cowdery's office was searched by the FBI last August so maybe he's corrupt and doesn't want those ethics bills to pass. If so, this might confirm Gene Therriault's objections at the beginning of the term.
  • The bipartisan Senate majority wants to avoid any issue that is mildly controversial for fear of splitting apart on the Senate floor. If that's the case, and they think Sonya Ivanoff is too controversial, they're never going to get anything done this term.
Your thoughts?

Shoddy Reporting

I found myself extraordinarily disappointed with the ADN's story this morning on Governor Palin's proposal to extend the Senior Care program because it made no mention of Nome Senator Don Olson's proposal to do exactly the same thing.

This is key because I think it was Olson's proposal that drove the Palin administration to introduce their version. If you check out Monday's Senate HESS Committee hearing on Olson's bill, the Department of Health and Social Services says, "Sure we like Donny's bill. We'd just prefer that you use ours as the vehicle instead." But somebody on Senate HESS made it clear they weren't going to wait so the Palin administration announced their proposal yesterday, the same day, incidentally, that the committee moved Olson's bill.

There's a couple of important policy differences between Olson's bill and the governor's. Donny gives more money to seniors ($150/month vs. $120/month) and eliminates (not extends) the sunset provision. I would have liked to see some discussion of those issues in the ADN's coverage.

This is one of the problems of having an Anchorage-based reporter writing about Juneau-centric issues. It's very easy to take a press release, call a few folks, and write a story but it misses out on so much of the important context surrounding the issue. Of course, the governor's press release isn't going to mention Olson's bill - they want all the credit. It's the reporter's job to know what else is going on and incorporate that into the story. Otherwise, the governor ends up dominating and shaping the news cycle in a way that she doesn't deserve.

Adding context and fleshing out a story is, of course, a very difficult part of this job and I have been guilty of not doing my due diligence on more occasions that I care to count. My frustration in this instance is more with the Palin administration's control of the news process than anything else.

21 February 2007

Sober Second Thought

The Canadian Senate, I believe, is known as the chamber of "sober second thought." In Alaska, the state senate is filling the same role... or, at least, Charlie Huggins of Wasilla is. Apparently, he doesn't think Susan Butcher deserves a day in perpetuity.

I'll leave aside the issue of whether he's right or not (my objections to Susan Butcher have never had to do with her as much as with the whole concept of naming days after people) and concentrate for a moment on the process.

If you check the bill history, you'll see it was initially referred to the State Affairs Committee. Lesil McGuire, the chair, waived that referral, which I presume would normally mean the bill heads right to the Senate floor. But Senate President Lyda Green had a different idea. She referred the bill to the Resources Committee and Senator Huggins' objections.

Let's think for a moment - what does Susan Butcher Day have to do with natural resources? The bill didn't come close to the House Resources Committee; State Affairs was good enough in the other body. The power to determine which committees hear which bills is one of the most powerful the Senate president has and I'm wondering why Lyda Green would want Resources to hear Susan Butcher Day. Could it be because she knows her close pal Charlie would stop it?

This is all blatant speculation (or b.s. as some prefer) but I've got to think there are more roadblocks to Susan Butcher Day than just Charlie Huggins.

I might suggest - completely non-seriously - that perhaps it's because Iditarod champ Martin Buser is a supporter of Mat-Su Republicans (see Palin, Sarah) and Huggins and Green would rather he be the first musher honoured. Buser and Butcher have won the race the same amount of times and Buser does hold the course record.

UPDATE: An ADN blog addresses this bill and confirms it's being held up by "senate leaders." Who, exactly, is not clear.

20 February 2007

Resign to Run?

I'm really intrigued by the bill proposed by House Speaker John Harris that requires the governor, lieutenant governor, or a state senator to resign before running for a higher office. The reason I'm intrigued is that I honestly don't know what I think about it.

On the one hand, it's clear that it makes sense that people are best represented by office-holders who devote their full attention to the office they hold and candidates who devote their full attention to campaigning.

But it does strike me that this is sort of chasing the wrong issue. Politicians always have their eye on another office and have always been running for something. If we've made it this far, why change the system?

If you don't accept that (totally weak) argument, consider that even current office-holders are always running for re-election (perhaps a bigger problem on a national level but still true in Alaska) and so are always both an office-holder and a candidate for office. As a result, political considerations are always influencing policy decisions. I'd love to figure out how to sever that link (don't think it can be done, though). Barring that, let's at least try to reduce the amount of time spent campaigning, sort of like parliamentary systems do.

As for the argument that Harris is seeking to curtail Sarah Palin's political ambitions, I honestly don't have an opinion on that. But it does strike me as odd that the people making that claim are Democrats who know that some of their strongest candidates for Ted Stevens' job are current office-holders who might need to resign to pursue the seat.

At the very least, it's an interesting idea.

19 February 2007

Alaska Gasline Requirement Act?

Governor Palin is finally making some substantive noises about that Alaska Gasline (sic.) Inducement Act she promised in the State of the State. Funny thing is, though, based on what she's said about it so far, you'd think it's the Alaska Gasline Requirement Act:

I have long promised Alaskans that the AGIA would accomplish four bedrock principles that protect Alaska’s long-term interests: (1) ensuring a project, (2) opening the North Slope basin to long term exploration and production, (3) creating jobs for Alaskans, and (4) ensuring gas for Alaskans. We built in requirements that any application must satisfy to compete for the right to the inducement package offered by the state, as we spell out how Alaska’s goals will be achieved through the AGIA.
The obvious question here is what are the inducements? Given that the Murkowski proposal fell apart over the inducements (locking in tax rates, etc.), you'd think the governor would want to put those on the table first to start discussion of them. But instead she's talking about the political popular and non-controversial requirements that almost no one can disagree with. But I can only really evaluate what I think about the requirements when I understand what is the state is giving up in return.

This is the problem with avoiding the media and making public statements through a weekly recorded briefing. We only hear what the administration wants us to hear and not what is actually important and relevant.

I hope they don't keep those inducements secret much longer. It's what will make this thing succeed or fail.

15 February 2007

Classic Don

The C-Man for All-AK got his 5 minutes on the floor today to address the Iraq war resolution. I entirely respect that Don Young and I might have different views on the resolution. But what I don't respect is that he made a number of inexcusable factual mistakes.

He begins by citing the bogus Lincoln quotation:

Congressmen who willfully take action during wartime that damage morale and undermine the military are saboteurs, and should be arrested, exiled or hanged

And then asserted that support of this resolution implies that funding will be cut off in the future. The resolution makes no reference to funding and to imply otherwise pre-empts a debate that is sure to divide the Democratic Party in the near future.

He casually calls the Khmer Rouge the "Cameron Rouge" which sounds either like an actor or a make-up, I'm not sure which.

And he implies that Congress stood behind every presidential war effort up until Vietnam, which I have difficulty swallowing, given past debates over Truman's use of nuclear weapons, the America Firsters in World War I, and many more.

(I haven't been able to find the text of the address yet but I did hear it so you'll have to assume I'm getting everything right.)

Is it too much to ask that our only congressman - and his staff - could have the wherewithal to factually express their support of this war?

By "Classic Don" I mean "completely wrong."

Elizabeth Peratrovich Day

Last week, I was merrily citing examples of days that the legislature enacted to honor specific people but whose days were forgotten when they actually rolled around.

I forgot about Elizabeth Peratrovich Day, which is tomorrow, but Jeffry Silverman did not, writing a Compass piece, which the ADN helpfully published a day early:

Elizabeth Peratrovich Day is for everyone. Whatever your skin color, religion or first language, the civil rights law Alaska passed in 1945 is for you. Look in the mirror and say, "Elizabeth and Roy Peratrovich did it for me."
It's a good piece, particularly since I must confess I knew nothing about Elizabeth before reading it.

While I continue to be sure that Elizabeth Peratrovich, Susan Butcher, elders, and many others deserve a special day, I also continue to think that it's not perhaps the most effective way of honouring them. Perhaps better education of our children would help. But that might require our lawmakers to do something difficult and potentially controversial.

14 February 2007

Ducking the Issue

In a bold display of gubernatorial leadership, Sarah Palin has ducked - for now - the issue of where the Habitat Division should be in state government by hiding behind her newly-appointed commissioners:

Governor Sarah Palin announced that she concurs with the Commissioners of the Alaska Department of Fish & Game and the Department of Natural Resources to leave the Office of Habitat Management and Permitting under the Department of Natural Resources, at this time.
I haven't seen the letter but I understand it says that the move should never have happened but that it would be too disruptive to move it back. It strikes me that that's a clever attempt to have it both ways. On the one hand, the governor can present herself as sufficiently green and environmental by noting the move was ill-advised. But she maintains the development-enhancing aspects of a weakened Habitat Division by leaving it where it is. Of course, she could honestly just need more time to evaluate the decision, in which case she should just say so flat out.

(By the way, what kind of action verb is "concur" for a press release? What governor wants to be known as the one who "concurred" with a decision. Governors should be "implementing," "appropriating," "enacting," "signing," and many others. "Concur" is a weak verb for a politician to use.)

Change requires disruption. This governor was elected on the promise of change, not on the promise of maintaining the status quo. If she believes moving the Division was in error, she should change that. If she just wants to avoid disruption, she needs to find a new job.

On another note, Governor Palin has declined my repeated attempts to interview her on her trip to Nome for Iron Dog. I can understand that (sort of) but the rumor is that she's actually in Nome. That, to me, just seems like she's ducking the media.

12 February 2007

A Moderate Stance on Iraq

Amid all the voices in Washington, D.C. talking about Iraq right now, there's one argument that I have not yet heard articulated that I think would usefully broaden this debate, re-focus it on the lives - and not the politics - at stake, and provide moderates a morally justifiable way to support the troop increase.

The argument I want to hear is the one that begins by recognizing the deep trauma and suffering American actions in Iraq are causing for Iraqis. Sunnis and Shia are dying by the scores on a daily basis but media reports focus extensively on American deaths, the Left only seems to care about those American deaths, and the Right seems to see all the deaths as a necessary cost of war.

The argument would next move to the idea that stopping Iraqi bloodshed should be the number one goal American policy because those Iraqis are dying because the American army has been unable - for the last nearly four years - to provide sufficient security in the country.

(Let's be clear here on the difference between security and stability. Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq was a stable government in that people generally knew where they stood and everyone wasn't always in fear of their life. But there was no security because that stability could change for any individual at any moment, depending on the whim on a tyrant. The American goal is stability with security.)

All of this might seem very obvious but when I listen to the Iraq debate in this country, I never hear the humanitarian argument being made. I hear the national security argument that failure in Iraq would threaten American interests throughout the region. I hear the argument that too many Americans are dying. But no one seems to care that thousands of Iraqis are dead because of American action and inaction and thousand more will die if the U.S. does not act appropriately.

The obvious strategy is the one the president has seized upon, which is to use the American military to provide security. Unfortunately, he's seized upon this strategy at a time when there's no political support for it and he's cast it solely in terms of national security. I say let's leave the national security implications aside for a moment and think about the deaths we (yes, "we" Americans who have collectively allowed our government to act in this way) have caused in Iraq and how we can prevent them.

There are so many people in this country who are rightly upset at the thousands of horrible deaths in Darfur but when it comes to the thousands of horrible deaths in Iraq, many people seem only to want to focus on the comparatively few of those dead who also happen to be American. John Edwards will talk on and on about his trip to Uganda and the people dying there and then in the next sentence calls for withdrawal from Iraq. This a morally bankrupt - not to mention inconsistent - approach to international relations and I wish someone with a voice in Washington would start calling people out for it.

I think there is an argument that can be made that rejects the withdrawal argument and re-frames the president's troop surge idea into a moral call to save innocent lives in Iraq. There's a lot of moderate Republican senators - like Lisa Murkowski - out there who appear to be in deep personal conflict about the president's proposal. I think the argument here allows them to (rightfully) criticize the president's conduct of this war, but continue to support the war but in moral terms that usefully broadens this debate to consider the true issues at stake, the death of thousands of innocent people.

08 February 2007

Public Access

Does anyone know, off the top of their head, how many press conferences/interviews/media availabilities Governor Palin has done since taking office? I remember a couple right off the bat that mostly dealt with appointing commissioners and then another carefully-structured one after the State of the State but I can't think of much else.

I ask because I'm trying to set up an interview with her when she comes to town for Iron Dog next week. I had thought they would love to do it but I am surprised at how much time it is taking. When Governor Murkowski was her, it was a lot easier. (He, of course, was running for re-election at the time.)

It's too bad, too, because there are so many great questions to ask like: How's progress coming on the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act? What do you think about the legislature's changes to the ethics bills? Where are you going to find 150-million dollars?

Instead, she seems to be keeping a fairly low profile. I assume she is working very hard behind the scenes and we can expect some important announcements soon.

07 February 2007

Susan Butcher Day

Lawmakers look set to name the first Saturday in March Susan Butcher Day, in honour of the Iditarod champion who died last year.

I never met Susan Butcher but even reading about her accomplishments is impressive.

That being said, is this really the wisest course of action? Does anyone know who else has days named after them in Alaska? How about Ernest Gruening? His day was yesterday. What did you do about it? Probably the same thing as the rest of us - nothing.

The legislature last year made a Wednesday in September senior citizens day. Did you do anything for it? I didn't.

There's no doubt in my mind that senior citizens, Ernest Gruening, and even Susan Butcher have made significant contributions to Alaska and deserve to be honored. But does it make sense to name a day after them and then do absolutely nothing about it?

I've commented on the many time-wasting and other negative aspects of the politics of symbolism. Our lawmakers in Juneau appear to be willing to devote considerable time to making themselves look good by associating themselves with people who actually do things but don't always appear to be willing to spend the same amount of effort on the pressing issues facing the state.

Doing Alaska Proud

Former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel's quest for the presidency received some high-level coverage yesterday... of course, it's not exactly positive:

The larger disaster was the long harangue of former Alaska senator Mike Gravel, a strident critic of almost everything and promoter of a folly -- a national initiative process -- that not even a deranged blogger could love. Someone has to give him the hook before the real debates begin.
David Broder doesn't think too highly of Gravel's idea. I can't blame him, really. After Fairbanks' recent experience with the initiative and referendum process, who does?

I guess Gravel could always rely on the old saw, "I do not care what you say about me so long as you spell my name correctly."

06 February 2007

Teacher Tenure

The Nome school district is likely going to have to lay off a few teachers before next year because declining enrollment means they don't need as many and they don't get as much money from the state. And given the state teacher tenure system, the people most likely to be laid off are the newest, youngest teachers.

I was thinking during tonight's School Board meeting that perhaps teacher tenure isn't the best of systems. Three teachers were commended by name for their work tonight and all three are non-tenured, young teachers. It strikes me that young teachers are the ones who have the most energy and enthusiasm to devote to the position because it's all new and they likely have fewer commitments outside of school.

Even if that's not the case, it strikes me as odd that the sole criterion for determining who stays and who goes is who has been around for three years and a day. Shouldn't children be taught by the best person for the job?

Of course, I'm sure there's some correlation between experience and the quality of instruction but there are also important indications of quality of instruction that are not related to experience.

Given how entrenched the teachers' unions are, I'm not likely to overturn their power. But it does make sense to at least have the conversation before the decisions are made.

05 February 2007

Nome Newbie

There's a new lawyer in town, apparently. I haven't actually met him but he has a blog and posted the following about his Saturday evening adventures, which is rapidly making the e-mail rounds of town. I'd link to it but apparently he's disabled the post. So here it is for the blogospher-ic record.

UPDATE: Wes e-mailed me and asked me to take his post off this web site, citing his desire to lead an "anonymous life". I've done so since they are his words, not mine, and we both live in a small town together. I've left the post up, however, so your excellent discussion in the comment thread is preserved.
It's funny... I went to a lot of the same places Wes was at at the same time and wrote an e-mail to a friend the next day about what a great night it was.

UPDATE: I just spoke to Wes on the phone for a story on his new job and I can report he is a decent, well-spoken, and interesting person. I look forward to meeting him.

02 February 2007

PERS/TRS Lawsuit

The Palin administration wants 12-million dollars to sue the pants off Mercer Consulting for putting the state retirement systems 10-billion dollars in the hole.

Fine. But - as I've already indicated - it doesn't solve the problem.

Senate Finance co-chair Bert Stedman - who I previously thought was wildly off the mark on PERS and TRS - appears to get the picture. At the weekly press conference earlier this week, he said about the idea of a lawsuit:

It's kind of a distraction in some ways. In other words, it's an important viable issue to look at but we don't want to lose sight of the policy calls dealing with the retirement system and the unfunded liability moving forward. I don't think it will materially change policy calls we need to make to get to a solution.
If you listen to the Department of Administration's presentation to Senate Finance today, you'll learn that Mercer was consulting for the state for 29 years. That leads me to one of two conclusions. First, Mercer has been making projection mistakes for nearly 30 years and no one noticed them. If that's the case, is it Mercer's fault for the wrong projections or the state's fault for not catching them. Second, Mercer has been doing just fine and this is a desperate attempt to pin the blame on whomever is around and looks liable.

But I have a hard time believing that after 29 years of apparently good service (else why else would have they been around that long?), Mercer all of a sudden made some major mistake that has contributed to this hole in PERS and TRS.