30 May 2007

Which One?

Amid all the important questions concerning the re-authorization of the subsistence bowhead hunt, the allegations against Ted Stevens, the corruption investigation more generally, whether $50 is enough for a hamburger and so on, the more basic question occupying my time right now is when (not if) I become a major recording artist, which picture should grace the cover of my debut album?
Of course, now I need to learn to write a few songs.

$50 hamburger

It seems to me that our lawmakers are missing the point of imposing new ethical limits on themselves:

In the Senate Finance Committee, Co-chairman Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, pushed for the limit to be raised to $50, "which would cover a reasonable meal, nothing too elaborate."

Sen. Donny Olson, D-Nome, said even a hamburger in his bush district could top the limit.

"Maybe not a $50 hamburger, but you'd be approaching it pretty quickly," he said.

The point of the rule is not to affect a lawmaker's ability to have a "reasonable" meal with a lobbyist. It's that when they have that meal they let everyone know about it.

A "reasonable" meal (and $50 is way over the reasonable limit for me) is exactly the problem here. It buys a lobbyist access to lawmakers to pitch them on whatever they want. The average voter who shows up in Juneau may not get that uninterrupted access, particularly if it is late in the session. If my lawmakers are spending a lot of time with lobbyists, I want to know about it and the $15 rule makes that possible. I won't necessarily judge the lawmakers for eating those meals but I do want to know about them.

If lawmakers are worried that the list of people they eat with would make them look bad in public, then they should really ask themselves who they're eating with and whether it's what they're in Juneau to do.

Also, a note to my good senator, I had a good salmon burger, french fries, and iced tea for less than $15 at Fat Freddie's last week.

By Association

I'm prepared to let the investigation continue and see what links actually end up getting proven between Ted Stevens and Bill Allen even after yesterday's ADN story about the possible link between re-modeling on Stevens' home and Allen.

That being said, at the very least the charges raised in the article taint Stevens just by association. Bill Allen has said he bribed state lawmakers. There's no evidence, of course, Stevens took cash directly from Allen's wallet (nor would he - he's a bit smarter than that) but the fact that Allen "reviewed" the invoices for the project has to at least raise some huge flags, given Allen's admitted behavior. Not only that, Stevens apparently paid for the project out of a separate bank account, which should also raise some flags. Combine this with the payments Allen apparently made to Ben Stevens and it paints a troubling picture of just whom the Stevens associate with and how they associate with them. Everything the contractors in the story say could be wrong except for the link between Allen and Stevens and it would still be a cause for concern.

Again, I'm not saying Uncle Ted has done anything wrong but the story seems to demonstrate that he was associating with people who may not have had the highest ethical standards. That alone raises concern.

Of course, if we judge people by who they hang out with we'd all be in trouble.

28 May 2007

Jewelry Stores

I've been very interested by this story out of Ketchikan:

A Ketchikan citizens' group can begin collecting signatures for a proposed initiative seeking to limit jewelry stores in the Southeast town. Sponsors say proliferation of downtown jewelry stores area has resulted in a monotonous retail atmosphere. They want to see a broader array of retail choices.
When I was in Juneau, I was amazed at the number of (seasonal) jewelry stores it was able to support, though I later realized they - like much else in Juneau - was tied to the cruise ships.

Two thoughts I have on this:

First, I'm not sure how successful I think they'll be. All the businesses wouldn't be there if the market couldn't support them. The key to getting rid of jewelry stores is getting rid of cruise ships.

Second, what would a similar petition look like to you? In Nome, it's as if someone decided to protest the number of bars on Front St. That's practically what Front St. is for.

Third, why don't more people in Nome take advantage of the petition process? I think there's a huge group of people in Nome who would be interested in having bars go smoke free. The issue would never make it through the Common Council but I'd give it fair odds of passing a vote in the city. But no one ever seems to organize it.

And that's three thoughts and why I wasn't a math major.

26 May 2007

"Frontier of Climate Change"

The New York Times introduces the world to "climate change refugees" with its lengthy treatment of erosion in Newtok in tomorrow's paper:

The earth beneath much of Alaska is not what it used to be. The permanently frozen subsoil, known as permafrost, upon which Newtok and so many other Native Alaskan villages rest is melting, yielding to warming air temperatures and a warming ocean. Sea ice that would normally protect coastal villages is forming later in the year, allowing fall storms to pound away at the shoreline.

Erosion has made Newtok an island, caught between the ever widening Ninglick River and a slough to the north. The village is below sea level, and sinking.
Check 'er out.

25 May 2007

Don Young

KTUU has a hard-hitting story on Don Young:

Alaska Rep. Don Young is pushing legislation to bolster the country's eagle population.

Young is introducing a bill that would fund eagle research and education programs. Money for the programs would come from an existing Commemorative Coin Act.

Meanwhile, Don was part of a very small minority that voted against the House of Representative's large-scale ethics reform package yesterday. I have not seen this reported in any Alaska media today.

I wonder what our ethical governor thinks of her representative's vote?

Don Young: trying to save the eagles AND the lobbyists.

(Thanks to a reader for tipping me to this.)

Front page

I occasionally am critical of the Nome Nugget for its front-page layout (well, not just the layout). They always seem to put the insignificant stories above the fold and the substantial (such as they are) items below the fold. It just never grabs my attention.

But once I saw the picture they put above the fold this week... well, let's just say my criticisms will be considerably muted in the future.

"Lower 48 Bias"

My co-worker David has an interesting post on a new sort of news bias he's identified in the mass media: the lower-48 bias:

So you'd think that the problems faced in Alaska - objectively worse, when it comes to gas, than almost anywhere else in America - would merit at least a phrase or two in the AP story that keeps getting such fantastic airplay on ABC News. After all, our state is by far the biggest in the nation; we're as wide as the distance from Tallahassee, Florida to San Francisco, and twice the size of Texas. And plus, we provide a substantial proportion of the national oil; just one region in Alaska (Prudhoe Bay) provides 17% of our domestic production alone. Right?

But I guess AP just couldn't fit us in. Either that, or their conception of "national news" is about the same as they held in December 1958, when the "nation" still meant the 48 contiguous states from Maine to California.
Check it out.

24 May 2007

Shaping the news

It should come as no surprise to anyone that politicians frequently try to "game" the news media to produce the best possible coverage for them. Even so, when there's a particularly blatant example of it, it's fun to break it down.

Let's take a look at the events surrounding yesterday's announcement that the Palin administration is putting money into Senior Care on an emergency basis. And since press releases are now sent by e-mail and e-mails are time-stamped, we can get a really good picture of the timeline.

  • Tuesday, 4:48PM - House Democrats issue a press release announcing a press conference on Wednesday in which they say they will call on the governor to add Senior Care to the special session call.
  • Wednesday, 11AM - House Democrats begin their press conference and call on the governor to add Senior Care to the special session call. There's numerous media here - AP, KTUU, APRN, ADN, etc. No doubt, they are already writing the lead in their head, "House Democrats today called on Governor Sarah Palin to add..."
  • Wednesday, 11:50AM - While the press conference is still going on, the governor's press office releases an announcement that says the governor is continuing senior benefits on a short-term basis. The announcement is long on the history of the administration's attempt to add Senior Care funding but short on where exactly the money for this extension is going to come from. There's no mention of the Democrats.
  • Wednesday, 12:52PM - The governor's press office lets reporters know the governor will be available at 2PM (just one hour away), at a senior center, to discuss benefit programs for seniors. This is a blatant and obvious attempt to comment on the story that will no doubt be the story that political reporters in the state write about today. Even though Democrats aren't mentioned, the timing of the announcements makes it clear that it is in response to the Democrats' press conference.
  • Thursday - Media coverage of Senior Care almost exclusively begins with reference to the governor's action: ADN, KTUU, News-Miner, APRN, and so on. Democrats are mentioned secondarily, if at all. Governor Palin - depending on the version - looks more or less like the seniors' savior.
As I said, that politicians try to make themselves look good isn't exactly an earth-shattering revelation but it's neat to see how it unfolds step-by-step over time.

Interestingly, something similar happened with the original Senior Care legislation. Nome Senator Don Olson introduced Senate Bill 4 to extend the sunset date, the bill was heard in committee, the Palin administration said, "Of course we support this idea. In fact we're working on a version of our own," a day or two later a press release comes out trumpeting the new plan (similar to Olson's), and media coverage focuses on the Palin plan. You might recall I got up in arms about this some time ago.

23 May 2007

Having it all ways

At some point, Sarah Palin is going to have to make a decision. It'll be hard but she's going to have to make somebody upset. I think the issue is going to be aid to seniors.

Here's why:

House Democrats had a press conference today urging Palin to add Senior Care to the special session call in the fall. They're disappointed that their attempts to get a vote on the measure failed on party line votes this year. Les Gara said he's confident the measure can pass if they can get the governor on side and have her start exerting some pressure on lawmakers. It's reasonable to expect - after all, she did make the longevity bonus a center-piece of her campaign.

Meanwhile, Republicans are no doubt stewing about all this. If you ask them, they took care of seniors this year by continuing funding for several programs.

So what's a governor supposed to? So far Governor Palin has responded with a perfectly-timed press release that promises to extend the program for a month while "state searches for long-term solution." She also challenges the Democrats - without mentioning them - by saying the issue can't wait for a fall special session. Essentially, this is kicking the issue down the road a bit. Notice it's the "state" searching for the solution, not the "governor" or the "governor's office." Gotta put a little distance between the office and the starving seniors.

Governor Palin has thus far been touting how her accomplishments have been bipartisan and inclusive. But at some point she needs to do something here. Either, it's going to be to offend the Republican leadership and include Senior Care in the call (to which they would no doubt say, "we have already taken care of them"), not include Senior Care in the call (and offend Democrats), or implement sort of solution by regulation (which might please Democrats but offend the Republican leadership who've already "taken care" of the issue).

Which will it be?

Pork per lawmaker

In response to an earlier comment, I've found a document from the Legislative Finance Division to be moderately helpful in figuring out how much each district gets from the capital budget. You can access it here:


The problem with this document is that it lumps together all the districts in a city. So, for instance, the dozen-plus lawmakers in Anchorage can take credit for all the projects in that city even if they had little to do with it. I suppose it wouldn't take a rocket scientist to figure out how the money for, say, artificial turf on a high school football field got in there if you knew who represented that particular high school. But I'm not that familiar with Anchorage to pick all that out. You also can't really tell if a senator or a representative added the money unless you compare the Senate and House versions of the bill.

All I know is my own Richard Foster - as he so often does - brought home the bacon!

(But it's a horrendous document overall... with the exception of any project in District 39.)

22 May 2007

The Backlash Continues

I'm surprised I'm saying this but thank goodness for Alaska's media. They are the ones bringing to light - as is often the case - the numerous ill-conceived projects that are funded (but don't deserve to be) in this year's capital budget.

The latest example is a Christian school that received some money. House Finance co-chair Kevin Meyer, one of two prime overseers of the capital budget process, appears to completely abdicate his leadership role:

Meyer said that he wasn't aware of the exact wording of the constitutional funding prohibition. But he also says there are checks and balances. Even if the governor does not veto the appropriation, it will be reviewed by a state agency before a check is cut.

Well, yeah, but aren't there also checks in the legislative system? Like the oath you swore to uphold the constitution? I don't think that oath said you'd let a state agency uphold the constitution. And if a state agency is doing all that work, why not let them examine all the projects in the state and then decide which ones get funding, rather than letting a lawmaker's seniority and partisan affiliation be the judge? Shouldn't the House Finance committee - as a general rule - leave enough time to ensure its work meets a basic standard of constitutionality? Perhaps the 15 minutes you gave the Senate to examine your work was not sufficient?

Just a thought.

21 May 2007

Top of the list

If there's one project that I'd bet is at the top of Sarah Palin's to-be-vetoed list in the capital budget, it's the money for the SportsDome in Anchorage.

Not only is it an obvious use of state dollars to bail out a failing venture, it's also attracted a negative article on the front-page of the ADN, been criticized by Democrats, and would allow the governor to burnish her image as a fiscal conservative who doesn't like spending state dollars.

I hope her pen crosses through some of that money for artificial turf in Anchorage high school athletic fields too.

Patriot Act

If you listened to Alaska News Nightly last Thursday, you might have caught the story about Lisa Murkowski seeking action on the issues raised by the recent Amnesty International Report about rape and sexual violence among Alaska Natives.

You might have also heard mention that Murkowski wanted "acting" U.S. Attorney Nelson Cohen to be more involved with the Alaska Rural Justice and Law Enforcement Commission. That's the commission started by Ted Stevens to look at life in rural Alaska. It's co-chairs are, I believe, supposed to be the Attorney General of Alaska and the U.S. Attorney for Alaska. Talis Colberg spent quite a few hours towards the end of the legislative session stumping for a piece of legislation proposed by the Commission even though the idea was developed before he became a co-chair but Cohen, apparently, is nowhere to be seen.

Believe it or not, this is an example of the Patriot Act at work. The law allows the president to appoint "acting" U.S. Attorneys (for indefinite periods of time) without having them be subject to Senate confirmation. Traditionally, the president has appointed U.S. Attorneys only with the consent and advice of the senators for that state. You might recall the kerfuffle when Cohen was appointed. Ted Stevens was upset he wasn't consulted and that Bush appointed a non-Alaskan to the job.

Now we see that this particular non-Alaskan - in the words of one senator - is apparently not altogether interested in what happens in the vast landmass of the state outside its cities. And we have the Patriot Act to thank for that... and a presidential administration apparently intent on putting political lackeys into the U.S. Attorney position around the country.

I'm sure Nelson Cohen is a very nice man but wouldn't it be nice if an Alaskan held the job?

18 May 2007

Moderate Republicans

The Economist has an interesting article about a newly-elected Republican governor who's reaching out to Democrats, sharing credit, and winning over the people of the state. No, not her:

For much of his political career Charlie Crist, the new Republican governor of Florida, was seen as a bit of a lightweight. With his tanned face and neat silver hair, he looked a standard-issue moderate conservative. But since his election last November he has impressed both the left and the right. A poll by Quinnipiac University in March found that 73% of Florida's voters, including 71% of Democrats, approve of the job he is doing. Amazingly, that is 11% better than the highest approval rating of his popular predecessor, Jeb Bush.

In his first 100 days Mr Crist has called for a fight against global warming, an expansion of stem-cell research and the introduction of paper ballots to replace the state's infamous touch-screen voting machines. He also wants to restore voting rights for criminals released from jail: quite a reversal for someone once nicknamed “Chain Gang Charlie” for advocating forced prison labour. And his efforts on behalf of minorities have prompted some to call him the state's “first black governor”. He prodded the state legislature to give $5m to the family of a 14-year-old black boy who died after a beating by guards at a boot camp for juveniles.

But for the silver hair, that almost sounds like a description of Sarah Palin, right down to the lightweight comment. Sarah's ratings are - ahem - no measly 73%, though.

I post it only to note that perhaps Republicans (and Democrats as well) are actually learning from the disastrous Bush years: people don't like incompetent and divisive government that seeks partisan goals before policy goals. Now if only this lesson would spread to Congress as well.

R.I.P. Good Ideas

The statistics for the legislative session are just astounding sometimes: 449 bills get introduced and only 66 pass both chambers. That's got to be disappointing for all those lawmakers who show up in Juneau with great ideas to change the state.

A couple bills that didn't make it through that I think deserved more consideration:

  • HB41 that would have moved the Habitat Division back to Fish and Game. This never even made it out of the Fisheries Committee. Even though it got a couple of public hearings, it would have been nice if people had been able to vote on it, rather than just let it expire slowly in committee.
  • HB80 that would have explored the feasibility of ferry service on the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers. I know this idea might not go anywhere because of the general malaise afflicting the ferry system and the necessary capital investment but I'd at least like people to keep talking about.
  • HB32 that would outlaw coin-toss runoffs. As much as I appreciated - from a reporter's perspective - last year's Edgmon/Moses showdown, I don't really think it's way the things should work.
  • SB112 that would waive the statute of limitations on sexual abuse cases for one year. I don't quite know how I feel about this bill but it deserved a better fate than its ignominious demise in the Rules Committee. Think someone from the church got to John Cowdery?
There's always next session, I suppose, though remember that under the new 90-day session rules, any bill that doesn't make it out of its first committee of referral by the end of the first session is dead.

Clean Elections

I really like the idea of Clean Elections and am glad to see it gets play in the ADN today:

With Clean Elections, corporations and special interests can't buy their way into the halls of government with large campaign contributions. Special interest money is simply taken out of the equation. This puts people back in charge of the electoral process and their democracy. Candidates are no longer beholden to a small number or large donors, but are free to serve the actual voters that elected them.
The objection that I always hear about government-financing of elections is something like this: free speech is constitutionally-guaranteed and donating money is an example of free speech and so can not be regulated. (In fact, I believe the Supreme Court has ruled that way.)

I believe in free speech as much as the next person but I even more believe in free AND EQUAL speech. And money makes speech unequal because - and this is undeniable - it privileges some speech over others. The only reason Bill Allen was able to get people to vote his way was not because of the inherent virtue of his beliefs but because he was able to buy access and votes with his cash.

Free speech works just like pure economic competition - a free marketplace in which each idea (or business) competes equally and the best one wins. But when one of those ideas is given undue prominence because of the access money buys we no longer have free speech.

That's why I think Clean Elections at the very least deserve to be discussed.

UPDATE: There's bi-partisan sponsorship (including Lesil "My Husband is Indicted for Bribery" McGuire) for the two clean elections bills introduced late in the session. That should at least make the issue viable next session.

17 May 2007


I find myself this first post-legislative day in the delightful community of Shishmaref, that poster-child of global warming. The story, for those of not in the know, is that increasingly severe fall storms and later-forming sea ice have devasted Shishmaref's shoreline leading to dangerous erosion.

I arrived with this knowledge and eager to see the shoreline for myself. But when I took a walk along the oceanside of town this morning, I thought to myself, "How can erosion possibly be a problem? There's a good 50 to 75 feet between the nearest house and the waterline."

Then I actually started talking to people and almost immediately heard this comment from one store-owner who lives near the shore: "We lost 40 feet of beach in the last severe fall storm we had. And we've had two of those storms in the last three years."

It's amazing what happens when you talk to people who actually know what they're talking about rather than leaping to whatever first conclusion enters your mind.

16 May 2007

One "Scandal" or Two?

One phrase in the media coverage of today's plea by Bill Bobrick caught my eye:

Bobrick becomes the seventh person to be charged in a corruption investigation that burst into public view last summer with the searches of state lawmakers' offices. Anderson, state Rep. Vic Kohring, former Reps. Pete Kott and Bruce Weyhrauch and Veco Corp. executives Bill Allen and Rick Smith have been hit with charges. Allen and Smith have pleaded guilty.
Is their one investigation going on here or two? As I see it, Kott, Weyhrauch, and Kohring are a separate and unrelated in investigation dealing with VECO, an oil tax, and a natural gas pipeline. Anderson/Bobrick deals with the state legislature but is more about a prison. Yet another question for the feds to answer.

I understand that both these cases can be made a part of a larger "culture of corruption" that apparently permeates Juneau but I don't find it helpful to conflate the two cases into one, as the media appears intent on doing.

Also... how big a scumbag are these lobbyists? Not only do they buy off the lawmakers for peanuts (or the promise of peanuts in Weyhrauch's case) but when the feds get on their case, they turn around and reach a plea agreement. At least they could have stood by their corrupt lawmaker stooges and pleaded not guilty. Now Kott, Weyhrauch, Kohring, and Anderson are left to twist in the wind.

Not a bad place for them, come to think of it.

15 May 2007

Testing the governor

The ADN is making the imminent demise of SB80 a story about the influence of the oil industry on Mike Chenault:

But here we are with less than two days to go in the session, and the bill appears dead. At last report, it was stalled in the House Finance Committee, caught in the annual end-of-session legislative logjam.

Ordinarily, the bill would be handled by Finance co-chair Kevin Meyer. But he's employed by Conoco Phillips, the state's largest oil producer. He turned the bill over to his co-chair, Kenai Rep. Mike Chenault.

That's the same Mike Chenault who has taken thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Veco during his political career. In his most recent election cycle, Rep. Chenault collected $5,000 from five Veco executives, including the two who admitted to a bribery scheme, Bill Allen and Rick Smith.

This is a compelling critique, I have no doubt, but I wonder what this end-of-session struggle says about the power of the governor. She has sky-high approval ratings and has had two of her major legislative priorities (ethics and AGIA) passed almost without opposition. And yet none of that apparently transfers into the necessary impetus to get a bill co-sponsored by a majority of both bodies passed.

Is it because
  • a) she's not pushing as hard as she could be because it's not as big a priority as she makes it out to be?
  • b) she doesn't have the political skills to get it through?
  • c) legislative leaders have decided to give her two accomplishments but are otherwise unimpressed with her and prefer to ignore and/or minimize her importance in the capital?
Obviously, there's tons of factors that affect whether or not a bill passes, particularly this late in the session. But I've been wondering lately if the governor is as strong as she seems and I'm wondering if this is an example of the relatively limited extent of her power.

14 May 2007

Still cold

The weather has been absolutely beautiful lately - bright sun, blue skies, with a nary a cloud in sight. This naturally turns one's mind to thoughts of being outdoors.

This weekend seemed a particularly apt moment to wash the car after a winter's worth of dirt and mud had accumulated. The bright sun seemed to make it an ideal time. Of course, once I got out there and started in at it, I realized just how cold water can be and the foolishness of parking the car in the shade. I sped through that job much quicker than I had anticipated and still finished with frozen fingers.

Then on Sunday I decided it was a good time to read on the back porch or even play the guitar. So I headed outside and got comfortable, only to head back inside in about three minutes when I realized my hands were so cold they didn't have the dexterity to turn the pages.

I had thought that after two years in Nome I would be acclimatized to the cold (and maybe I am - not everyone's first thought when the mercury hits 25 is to wash the car). But every time I think I am, I realize just how much I am not.

Capital Budget

There's so much to criticize about the capital budget.

You could start with the tens of thousands of dollars going to projects that, for me, are marginal state priorities, like artificial turf on high school football fields in Anchorage.

Or you could point to the eleventh hour at which all the decisions were made and wonder just how clear-headed lawmakers were under such a severe time pressure.

Or you could wonder about how a lawmaker's seniority - and not the intrinsic need for a project - affects how money gets spent. And Kevin Meyer calls that a fair process?

Or you could ask why revenue-sharing and some education funding gets included in the budget but when Democrats ask to spend more on a few specific social services additions they get told those concerns should go into the operating budget.

But then I read through the budget and see there is 2.25 million dollars for (much-needed, of course) repairs and renovations to the Nome Recreation Center and the construction of a covered ice-skating rink and I think how great it would be not to have to shovel snow for an hour before I play hockey or dodge puddles when I play racquetball and I say, "This is a great budget. It can't pass soon enough!"

11 May 2007

Voting no

AGIA passed the House this morning and the only dissenting vote was Ralph Samuels. Not only was it odd to see the majority leader voting against his entire caucus (and the other caucus) but the vote gives reason for pause.

Samuels is routinely described as the most knowledgeable lawmaker on oil and gas issues and that alone should give anyone second thoughts.

(It could be - though I doubt it - that he's in the pocket of the oil companies, like several of his colleagues appear to have been. But if that were the case, surely when he saw the vote was going against the producers he would have covered by supporting the measure. If I were Vic Kohring, I'd be voting "yes" on this bill no matter what was in the bill, simply because the bill is seen as anti-producer.)

On the floor, Samuels described his objections to the bill as concerns that it won't generate a sufficient number of serious bids to build the pipeline and the state will get stuck with a bad project that won't come to fruition. Is that a harbinger of the future?

One thing that Samuels said, though, is for certain. I paraphrase: "This is not the important vote. The vote that matters is next session when we have to pick a project."

UPDATE: I see Vic skipped the session and dodged the vote.

10 May 2007


Now that the Voice of the Times is leaving the ADN, what will take its place?

Mike Sexton is promising change:

As it concludes, I want you to know that we intend to introduce an invigorated Opinion section that not only continues to embrace the broadest range debate in Alaska but expands on that and incorporates new media opportunities as well.
Why the use of the word "invigorated" and not, say, "re-invigorated"? At least by using the latter, you can make it seem like the Opinion section is regaining some last stature. But with the former, it just seems to acknowledge the current lameness of the section overall.

I would like to see regular local columnists and by regular I mean folks who write about Alaskan issues once or twice a week. (And yes, I am volunteering.) Right now, the stable of columnists at the ADN appears to produce columns (sometimes only tangentially related to Alaska) only at random. And I'd like to see more submissions to the Compass section that aren't from activists or lawmakers.

In order for both of these ideas to work, the ADN is going to have shell out some cash. (Pay people for their well-written Compass pieces?) I know they might not like that idea but if they really want to "invigorate" their Opinion section, this would be a good start.

This is surprising?

Are we supposed to be surprised by the news that a drilling company struck oil in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska? After all, isn't that why it's there?

Beyond VECO

In all the media coverage of these arrests, I have not seen any mention of the connection between VECO and the major oil producers, like BP, ConocoPhillips, and ExxonMobil. VECO is described simply as an "oil field services company" and there's not a lot of coverage of what it is, exactly, that VECO does or what its relationship with the North Slope producers is.

Yet the obvious point is that the producers benefited from the positions that VECO bought last session, as we've seen in the PPT payments this year and would have seen had the Murkowski contract gone ahead. I'm not accusing anybody of anything but it does seem that we should at least consider how closely Bill Allen, Rick Smith, et al. worked with lobbyists and representatives of the Big Three. After all, the Big Three couldn't have been completely in the dark about what Allen and Smith were up to.

09 May 2007

Back to business

Let us steer our eyes away from Bill Allen et al. and direct our eyes to other matters in Juneau. After all, the session ends in a week and there's plenty of work still to be done. Both the House and Senate have had extensive calendars lately and numerous bills are moving through the chambers.

Let's take a look at one: HB229. This bill, as near as I can tell it, allows up to 2.9 billion dollars to be bonded to fund the transport of coal by the Alaska Railroad for gasification to fuel Agrium.

So a couple of questions:

  • Isn't 2-point-9 billion dollars a lot of money? Who's ultimately responsible if somebody defaults?
  • Doesn't coal-burning contribute to climate change? What's the difference between gasification and regular ol' coal-burning?
  • What has been Agrium's role in all this?
I am sure there are good answers to all these questions. After all, in less than a month and a half a bill that spends nearly the amount of general fund spending in last year's capital budget (admittedly, not of state dollars... at least, not directly) has moved through the House and on to the Senate floor with nary a voice of dissent. That surely must mean this is good policy and all the questions about it have been answered.

And they surely could have been. But this strikes me as a fairly major bill that has a fairly significant impact and has not been covered by any members of the press (can anyone provide any links to stories about this bill?). Surely, with the links between some members of the Republican party and energy businesses under scrutiny it makes sense to take a look at this bill.

Actually, my point is not so much about this bill. It's about all the many bills flowing through the House and Senate at the end of session as the media engages in some collective hand-wringing about VECO without looking at what else is going on. I sure hope we can trust our lawmakers to be taking a good, unbiased look at these bills with only the best interests of Alaskans at heart. They've proven so good at it in the past.

UPDATE: Thanks for the links to the news stories on this bill. I had overlooked those. Take a look at how much support this is getting in the Senate Finance committee, though. Not much.

07 May 2007

Questions, questions, questions

I have a lot more questions right now than I do answers. If you have any thoughts on what's below, let me know:

  • Who is State Senator A in the Allen indictment? If he/she started in the senate in 2000, that means it could be either John Cowdery or Don Olson, both of whom had their offices raided last summer. (It could also be Bettye Davis.)
  • Did State Senator A get a bum deal? This person is not mentioned in most of the charges that involve State Representatives A, B, and C or State Senator B or "an elected official." In fact, the only thing State Senator A is accused of doing is proposing a plan to buy off "an elected official" and participating in a meeting between the "elected official" and Allen.
  • Who is that "elected official" mentioned in the Allen indictment? And why aren't they referred to as a State Senator or a State Representative? Could it be because they don't fall into one of those two categories? If so, I think that means it is either Don Young, Lisa Murkowski, Ted Stevens, Frank Murkowski, or Loren Leman. Or could it be a non-statewide elected official?
  • When is Ben Stevens going to get indicted? It is obvious he is State Senator B in the Allen indictment and likely State Senator A in the Kott/Weyhrauch indictment. Is he negotiating a plea agreement right now with prosecutors?
  • How did Bill Allen avoid the perp walk? Kott, Weyhrauch, and Kohring had the "indignity" of having to be photographed in handcuffs. How did Allen get in and out of court before anyone knew about it?
  • How big a scumbag is Bill Allen? Not only did he apparently mock the lawmakers he was buying off, but when it actually came time for him to face the music and get indicted, he pleaded guilty, making all those not guilty pleas on Friday ring a little hollow. So much for presenting a united front.
  • Is there any enthusiasm for re-considering PPT? And if so, is there any enthusiasm for re-considering it in a special session? If AGIA passes this session, there might be a contract to consider in next year's regular (90-day) session. If re-considering PPT is so important, perhaps it make sense to devote 30 days to it this summer.
  • Are Alaska's lawmakers really as cheap as Friday's news makes it seem? I actually do have an answer to this question in that I think the Allen indictment makes clear that there was a lot more than a few $100-bills changing hands or polls being paid for. "Consulting" and lobbying jobs could provide a comfortable existence, I am sure, not to mention the campaign contributions.
  • What did Pete Kott's constituents know that Vic Kohring's did not? How come Kott got booted in the primary and Kohring got re-elected?
  • In last fall's election, did the governor vote for Kohring, the representative of her district?
  • Is Bruce Weyhrauch the most incompetent of the bunch? At least with Kott and Kohring, they got money before actually prostituting themselves. The picture of Weyhrauch in his indictment is of a slightly more pathetic lawmaker who doesn't quite know what he's doing but is looking for some extra money. So he gets strung along on the promise of future work (still illegal but at least he'd be working for the money he'd be getting), changes his votes, and doesn't get anything but an indictment out of the deal.
  • Have Kott, Kohring, and Weyhrauch already spent more in legal fees than they ever managed to get out of Allen?
Your thoughts?

UPDATE: KTUU is identifying Senator A (of the Allen indictment) as Cowdery.

Official Information Needed

When you take a look through the indictments in the VECO investigation, one thing that becomes immediately clear is that the federal government has done their homework before bringing these charges. Clearly, they had some sort of recording device in Suite 604 and potentially even some one, given that there are parts of the indictment that refer to the actions of people (i.e. "he pointed").

What's also interesting about this investigation is how few leaks there have been from it. Before the August raids, it wasn't really on the radar screen. Since then there may have been gossip and rumor swirling among people who are well-connected but nothing that's really made it into state media sources. Based on the indictments, I know there are two people from the U.S. Attorney's Office and a couple of people from the Public Integrity Division leading this investigation but I don't know who they are or what their methods have been.

So what I think is needed is for these federal officials - who are apparently quite good at their jobs - to hold a press conference and tell us a bit about this investigation. In particular, I'd like to know the answers to the following questions:

  • How long has this investigation been going on? In particular, was bribery and extortion by VECO executives under investigation before the 2nd session of the 24th legislature or did an investigation of the corrupt activity of lawmakers in the 24th legislature lead to VECO executives?
  • To the extent allowed without compromising anyone unnecesarily, what were the methods of investigation used that lead to these indictments?
  • How does the alleged behavior in Alaska compare to other investigations conducted by the Public Integrity folks?
  • I doubt this question would be answered but it would of course be nice to know how many other people are under investigation.
There is precedent for a press conference like this. Think of Patrick Fitzgerald, who also ran a leak-free investigation of a sensitive matter. When he finally got an indictment against Scooter Libby, he held a press conference and answered a lot of questions about the case.

These charges go right to the heart of Alaska state politics and it's only fair that Alaskans be able to learn as much as possible about the investigation.

Melting Sea Ice

Before we turn once again to the inane behaviour happening in Juneau (and, this morning, in Anchorage) let us turn briefly to this passage from this morning's ADN:

Right now, however, the forecast is for western Alaska and North Slope communities to enjoy a relatively early summer, with ice-free shipping lanes opening up a couple weeks earlier than last year, National Weather Service ice forecaster Kathleen Cole said Friday.

"We have some good open areas this year already near the eastern Russian coast and Norton Sound," Cole said. "Things will open up faster than they did last year -- and that's mostly due to the lack of multiyear sea ice in the Bering."

In the short term, at least, that's good news for northern Alaskans. A longer ice-free season means barges can reach Kotzebue and Barrow earlier and later in the summer, thus eliminating the high cost of receiving food and supplies by air that much longer. And summer seismic crews employed by oil companies won't be hampered as much by ice.

Said Cole: "I think everybody is going to be happy about that."

I assume by short term, we mean very short term. Let's of course keep in mind the long lead time on barge orders, meaning folks have to be able to count year-to-year on when the ice will go out in order to take advantage of those (putatively) cheaper prices. And what of Diomede, the village that relies on an ice runway for "cheap" groceries. When the ice melts, things come by helicopter only once a week, if that.

It's true summer seismic crews might not be hampered by ice but what about all the oil exploration that takes place on ice pads or trucks that drive on ice roads. Will they be happy?

And, of course, let's not forget the Alaska native subsistence hunts that depend on the ice pack being around at certain times to access certain animals (whales, walrus). If the ice pack leaves before the migration begins, everyone's out of luck.

So, no, I don't think everybody is going to be happy about the melting sea ice.


Watch this if you haven't already, though it's not clear to me where the $250,000 figure comes from. Pete Kott appears to have sold out for a lot less than that.

Thanks to AlaskanAbroad for the link.

04 May 2007

Sine Die

In the midst of digesting today's news about the arrests of Pete Kott, Bruce Weyhrauch, and Vic Kohring, I was reminded of a moment in last summer's PPT debate that I still don't quite understand.

Last June 4th, as the first special session on the petroleum profits tax was reaching its conclusion, the bill came before the full House of Representatives. A handful of representatives proposed increasing the tax rate with amendment 1. That measure passed, with a group of Republican lawmakers opposing it. Take a look at the journal text and focus on these names: Anderson, Chenault, Kohring, Kott, Meyer, and Weyhrauch.

Then, the House passed amendment 2, which, as I understand, made PPT more expensive for the oil producers. When you look at the journal text, you'll see that same group of lawmakers opposed it: Anderson, Chenault, Kohring, Kott, Meyer, and Weyhrauch.

And then came the part I completely did not understand - Bruce Weyhrauch moved to adjourn sine die. That means the session would adjourn for good and all the committee work on PPT - as well as those harmful amendments - would vanish until the legislature next meet, either in special or regular session. This move caught me off guard since it came right in the middle of a policy debate on an oil tax and I wondered at the back of my mind whether Weyhrauch was looking to protect the oil companies.

A vast majority of lawmakers voted against the move since they wanted to keep talking about PPT. But six lawmakers voted in favor of cutting off debate altogether: Anderson, Chenault, Kohring, Kott, Meyer, and Weyhrauch. Of those six names, four have now been arrested and charged with bribery in connection with an oil services company. The two others? They're chairing meetings of the Finance committee.

As Alaskans probe their memories for indicators that this might be coming, this is just my little contribution. I don't pretend to understand even a small portion of what's at play but it sure is interesting to watch.

UPDATE: The federal investigators picked up on this too - page 17 of the Weyhrauch/Kott indictment, paragraph 60, though it doesn't appear to mean much to the rest of the indictment.

Who's Next?

Yikes! Just when I thought I should post about something not related to the legislature, this news comes across the wire:

Former Alaska state legislators Pete Kott and Bruce Weyhrauch have been indicted by a federal grand jury on several counts of extortion, bribery, wire fraud and mail fraud.
For Weyhrauch, this news falls into the "just when you thought it couldn't get worse..." category, given his recent rescue from Auke Bay. (As I heard one person say today, "Perhaps this is why they were looking for him so hard.")

So far the FBI appears to be rounding up the former lawmakers, who apparently thought they were getting out while the getting was still good. But given the FBI raids last August, there's got to be some folks still in Juneau under the microscope. I'm interested to know if they'll be arrested before the end of the session or after and if before just what impact that will have on the end of session fervour. My feeling is it will ensure the ethics bill gets passed right away and will only give added impetus to passing AGIA, given how closely associated it is with that paragon of virtue, the governor, and how it is seen as the anti-Murkowski.

But given how relatively tight-lipped the FBI has been about this case, I guess I'll just have to sit here with my questions but no answers.


I've already written about how much I like language so it should come as no surprise that I like a new word coined by the New York Times:

Nobody really managed to steal the show and display graveltas, the ability to steal a debate with outrageous, curmudgeonly statements the way former Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska did in the recent Democratic debate in South Carolina.
Of course, all the graveltas in the world won't make a candidate viable. All it did for Gravel was to bring his polling numbers up to Kucinich land, which is to say, an asterisk, but a slightly larger one than before.

02 May 2007

End-of-session fireworks

I was getting a bit disappointed that AGIA appeared to be moving so uncontroversially through committee. Actually, I didn't have much of an opinion on it but I'm glad nonetheless for the heightened level of debate surrounding the "most important piece of legislation" this term.

I don't have any particular opinion on this debate since - like many Alaskans, I am sure - I'm not quite sure I fully understand the terms of the debate. So here's a series of disconnected thoughts.

First, the Palin administration is in a very strong position. The governor is popular and her stance in opposition to the producers is inherently popular. Plus, she's got Wally on her side!

Second, where have the producers been before this? When they testified in the four previous committees of referral did they make similar statements and they just were not reported? Or did they save their big threats until the end-of-session when the stakes are higher and their game of chicken would be taken more seriously.

Third, I wouldn't have been surprised before but I'll be especially un-surprised if AGIA winds up in a special session now. To all those lawmakers who have been saying they want to avoid one of those, I can only say, "Sorry, no one forced you into this job.

Fourth, I was surprised - and pleased - at how Bill McAllister wrote about the Senate majority yesterday:

As the clock ticks toward the May 16 adjournment of the Legislature, the position of the senate majority remains in a fog.

House Democrats and the Senate Republican minority appear generally to be supporting AGIA and yesterday House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez, said he foresaw the bill passing that chamber with few changes.

So at this point, the big question mark is the Senate bipartisan working group.

I listened to the press conference and I think he portrays their lack of clarity accurately but it's surprising to see reporting in Alaska that actually, you know, calls it like it is.

I would love to know what sort of conversations are going on behind the closed-doors of majority Senators. I also wonder if the lawmakers sitting in those chairs have the gravitas, sense of purpose, and general wherewithal to be able to come to grips with the magnitude of what they're doing. On the one hand, there are energy professionals who have studied the issues for a long time. On the other hand, there are some citizen-lawmakers with a wide variety of educational and professional backgrounds.

01 May 2007

The Decline and Fall

Four thoughts about how we can observe the decline and fall of Juneau reporting in Alaska's only remaining statewide paper:

  • As a reporter, I find I check bylines all the time. Notice how much of the Juneau-relevant stories are written by Associated Press authors and not by the ADN's staff in Juneau. As the pace of the legislative session increases and important end-of-session decisions are made, I've been surprised not to see more content from the ADN's in-house staff.
  • The ADN's Alaska politics blog, put together by Kyle Hopkins (with apparently occasional help from Ayres), focuses more and more each day on Anchorage politics with an occasional post based on a press release thrown in. There's very little original reporting or thinking on Alaska politics. The "Eye on Juneau" blog the ADN started earlier in the term has completely vanished.
  • I was changing my subscriptions to daily e-mails from the ADN the other day and noticed I was signed up for the legislative briefing e-mail that is supposed to come every day while the legislature is in session. I have never received a single one. This could be because there's something wrong with my e-mail but I'm more inclined to think it's indicative of how the ADN is dropping the ball on legislative coverage. They just don't produce enough content to justify a daily (or even weekly) e-mail.
  • A big story out of the legislature recently was the news that BP isn't buying into AGIA. The only way this story saw the light of day was that the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner's reporter Stefan Milkowski was (doing his job) at the hearing and wrote a story on it. The AP picked it up and the ADN ran the story but if the News-Miner hadn't been there no one would have ever found out. Where was the ADN's capital correspondent? In fact, when was the last time we saw a story in the ADN about any of the AGIA hearings?
People who want to move the legislature from Juneau say it would provide for better citizen oversight. Nonsense, say Juneau-philes, we've got a great press corps which keeps the citizenry up-to-date on everything that's going on.

I used to buy the argument of the Juneau-philes but when I see what the ADN is doing for us, I really have to wonder.

An Argument for 90 Days

Even though I didn't support the 90-day voter initiative, I think this press release is a strong argument for it:

In response to the creation and sale of an action figure named "Rapist Number One" based on a movie character of the same name in the movie "Grindhouse," Representative Anna Fairclough (R-Anchorage) today introduced a resolution denouncing the doll and calling on Alaskans to recognize the consequences of rape.
It's remarkable that it never occurs to any of these representatives that using the platform provided by one's seat in the legislature can actually do more harm than good in a situation like this. Rep. Fairclough has brought this issue to the attention of quite a number of people who would never otherwise have heard about it (me, for instance). In return, she gets a fairly meaningless resolution (that takes committee and floor time to hear) that won't have any impact on the people this doll is targeting.

The important question is whether resolutions like these will fall out of the legislative process in a 90-day session or whether there will be an equal amount of them, leaving less time for more pressing matters.