- Associated Press - Monday, February 2, 2015

Here is a sampling of editorial opinions from Alaska newspapers:

Feb. 2, 2015

Ketchikan Daily News: Word as bond

That the state of Alaska decided last week to appeal the recent Ketchikan Superior Court ruling freeing Alaska municipalities from required financial contributions to local schools surprised virtually no one.

Judge William Carey’s decision, made on the grounds that the required contribution violated a state constitutional requirement that no tax can be earmarked for a specific purpose, plunked an additional $220 million hole in school district budgets at a time when a porous operating budget is going to lose at least $3.5 billion in 2015 thanks to stunningly low oil prices.

Still, the modus operandi of the state on the issue of local education contributions has been essentially unchanged between the administrations of Gov. Sean Parnell and Gov. Bill Walker, and that might surprise those who solely relied on Walker’s statements when he was running for election.

When asked about the Ketchikan Gateway Borough’s lawsuit in October, during a debate hosted by the Ketchikan Daily News, Walker the candidate told a Ketchikan crowd that as a member of the Alaska Municipal League and Alaska Municipal Attorneys Association he had reviewed the litigation and that there was “a tremendous amount of support for it, a tremendous amount of empathy and acknowledgment that something had to be done.”

What did Walker himself think of the lawsuit?

“I think it’s a bold move,” Walker said. “I do support what you’re doing. I think there are times to step up and say enough is enough. I certainly am sorry that we’ve reached that point, I’ll put it that way. I know there’s lots of things that must have been done prior to reaching that point because I know that was not a knee-jerk reaction, but at some point you have to say enough is enough and stand up for what you feel is right, that’s what you’re doing, and I applaud your efforts on that.”

That sounds pretty straight forward.

After being elected, Walker was much less forthcoming on the issue.

“I have been advised by my attorney general that I need to defer to my attorney general on those things,” Walker told the Daily News in December.

Attorney General Craig Richards - who was Walker’s law partner for over 10 years - evidently decided on an appeal.

We’re not going to pillory Walker over what, on the surface, certainly looks like a drastic about face. Oil prices were not then what they are now, and technically everything Walker said at the debate could be a statement of his personal opinion, not how he planned to act as governor.

We will, however, offer advice: Be careful.

When you discuss an issue as a political candidate, you are essentially writing a check to Alaska communities and saying, “you can’t cash this now, but if you elect me, you can.”

This was an avoidable issue. Many people expected the state to appeal if it lost the suit, regardless of who was in the governor’s office.

In other words, Walker didn’t have to say what he did, and a gubernatorial debate is not the place to express your personal legal opinions if you are not planning on following through on them as governor.

That being said, things never stay the same. If the price of oil has dropped too low since the October debate, or if something else has changed your opinion, sit down with the voters and explain why. Voters are not necessarily owed action, but they are owed an explanation.

In any election, voters add up the checks that politicians have written with their promises, and count how many of those checks can now be cashed.

Knowing Walker’s admirable views on what it means to be an Alaskan, we don’t think he would have it any other way.


Jan. 29, 2015

Juneau Empire: Empire Editorial: Bars in our wake

You know times are bad when even the bars are closing.

Last week, the Alaska Marine Highway announced it will close the bars aboard the ferries Kennicott, Malaspina, Matanuska, Tustumena, Taku and Columbia as a cost-cutting measure.

For years, the state had operated the bars at a loss, and the move will save about $750,000 per year - money that will be used to stave off service cuts.

We understand the move, but we can’t help but feel mixed emotions about it. Most adults who travels the Marine Highway frequently has ended up in one of these bars. Even if you don’t drink alcohol, the bars have long been refuges from the hordes of kids traveling on school trips, the crying babies in the forward lounge and the nonstop clicking of tourist cameras.

The disappearance of the ferry bar is another small death to the idea of the ferry as the social equalizer, where Alaskans of all kinds mixed with the drinks.

The ferry bar is a place where the pipeline welder and legislative lawyer talk, where a cheechako can meet and get to know someone born and raised in Angoon. It’s where we make friends and share stories. For many immigrants, the ferry is the first taste of Alaska.

The shipboard bar is older than the ferry system. The Alaska Steamship Company and its predecessors operated bars aboard their ships. Stampeders popped champagne in the shipboard bars of 1898, eagerly anticipating the can’t-miss riches that awaited them. In 1899, they drank water on their sober trips south.

We understand the need to close the ferries bars even as we regret it. The obvious joke is that only a government could lose money running a bar in Alaska, and we can’t help but wonder if there is an alternative.

Might the state instead make money from its bars by auctioning concessions to private enterprise? Imagine a Red Onion bar aboard the Malaspina or a Chilkoot Charlie’s experience aboard the Columbia. The state could charge a single fee for the concession, or even take a share of each drink sold.

The National Park Service and the federal government in general make millions of dollars each year from concessions in Denali National Park and other popular tourist destinations. Why couldn’t the Alaska Marine Highway do the same and turn a money-losing proposition into something that turns a profit?

We fear that without a shared space for socialization, the ferry experience will turn into yet another excuse to cuddle with a smartphone, tablet or paperback. The last frontier of social contact might instead turn to the solarium, where tobacco smoke mingles with marijuana smoke before trailing off into a dim wake.


Feb. 1, 2015

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: Proposed Pentex purchase raises questions, signals commitment

While the state’s planned purchase of Fairbanks Natural Gas parent company Pentex may play a large part in the solution for natural gas delivery to Fairbanks, for the moment it mostly raises questions. The purchase would reduce the number of items local and state officials have to put into place, potentially including a gas liquefaction facility. But it also creates other wrinkles that must be dealt with before the end goal of affordable energy is achieved.

The announcement by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority on Wednesday that the state is planning to buy Pentex for $52.5 million was a surprise, but could significantly benefit the Interior Energy Project and its goals. The direction and timeline of the project were uncertain after the pullout of North Slope gas liquefaction plant contractor MWH in late December. With the pending acquisition, Gov. Walker has indicated a clear direction in which progress can continue. Moreover, the deal could be a significant boon if it includes the services of Pentex subsidiary Titan’s Port Mackenzie liquefaction plant, and if supply can be lined up from Cook Inlet producers. Even before its cost estimate crept upward, MWH’s plant on the North Slope was projected to cost $185 million - to have liquefaction capability at less than a third the up-front price would be a tremendous step forward for the Interior’s energy goals.

But those, at least for now, are ifs, and big ones. In late 2014, Pentex announced it was planning to sell the Port Mackenzie facility to Hilcorp subsidiary Harvest Alaska LLC. Whether that sale will still go forward is an open question, and one that could have serious ramifications with regard to the ability to deliver natural gas to the Interior at the target price of $15 per thousand cubic feet (the equivalent of heating fuel at roughly $2 per gallon). If the sale goes through, the state must hammer out terms with Harvest Alaska that would ensure the price goal can be met.

Also a source of consternation in some quarters is the apparent entry of the state as a gas supplier, creating a potentially odd relationship with regard to regulation - for instance, the Regulatory Commission of Alaska, a state body, may end up ruling on whether the sale of the liquefaction plant to Harvest Alaska goes through. Additionally, the state may end up negotiating gas supply terms with the same Cook Inlet producers whose license applications it is in a position to grant. Care must be taken to not let the government’s interests create an unfair operating environment.

Given Gov. Bill Walker’s aggressive timetable for Interior energy relief, these questions likely will be addressed soon, which will do much to clarify exactly how good of a deal the Pentex acquisition would be for the state and Interior residents. For now, the best sign that the deal may contribute significantly to gas delivery goals is the reaction of Interior legislators and the Interior Gas Utility. The bulk of their response has so far been positive.

Despite the additional issues raised by the state’s planned acquisition of Pentex, it’s good news that the Interior Energy Project isn’t languishing after MWH’s departure. It’s also good to see the state take an active role in helping pieces for the project come together. In the next few weeks and months, we hope to see those pieces assembled into a concrete plan for gas delivery to Fairbanks.

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