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We Build Alaska

Dispatches From Juneau: Fish oil lamentations

“Without fuel they were nothing. They’d built a house of straw. The thundering machines sputtered and stopped. Their leaders talked and talked and talked, but nothing could stem the avalanche.”

– The Narrator, “Road Warrior”


There’s another cruise ship in town and the coffee pot next to the windowless press room – crammed between the bathrooms and Representative Zack Fields’ (D – Anchorage) office – is empty. I’ve been contractually prohibited, on pain of death, dismemberment, and disbarment from legislative society, from discussing Sunday’s performance of the legislative skits.

With just two weeks left until the end of the 2023 legislative session, representatives are scrambling to present something resembling a fiscal plan, including Senate Bill 114: a proposed tax increase on oil and gas producers, introduced by the Senate Rules committee, chaired by Senator Bill Wielechowski (D – Anchorage).

Finance committee meetings can be dry at the best of times – more evocative of Ben Stein’s class in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” than anything else – but this tax, and the controversy it has engendered among oil producers, lends the process more excitement than normally might be the case.

Public testimony for SB 114 was scheduled for Monday, but due to the complexity of the subject matter and the unanticipatedly lengthy presentations done by several invited testifiers, the public testimony portion of the committee meeting was postponed until later in the week. This decision, announced towards the end of the afternoon Senate Finance Committee meeting, evoked groans of discontent from the group of people waiting in the room for their chance to testify – and, I assume, an equal amount of discontentment from those who had called in.

SB 114 stems, in part, from the perception that not enough of the North Slope’s oil production is directly benefiting Alaskans – a perception that the Alaska Oil and Gas Association would of course decry. As a petrostate in a changing world, where the oil boom of the 1970s is a thing of the past, it’s important for Alaska to reconsider the way it does business – though renewable energy is nowhere near the level it needs to be to replace oil.

Meanwhile, more invited testimony was heard over the exceedingly controversial Area M commercial fishery. Senator Donny Olson’s (D – Golovin) bill, SB 128, would limit the fishing time for the seiner fleet, in order to allow more salmon escapement to the Yukon-Kuskokwim region. Last month’s public testimony section featured commercial fishermen from the area voicing their displeasure, while residents of the AYK region described the difficulty of obtaining food with catastrophically low salmon runs.

During Monday’s invited testimony section, the Senate Resources Committee heard from several representatives of the Area M Seiner’s Association, including Kiley Thompson (the president of the organization) and their lobbyist Frances Leach. They referenced the February Board of Fisheries decision to limit (but not close) the Area M season, and pointed to several voluntary management decisions the fleet was undertaking (and had already done in 2022) to allow more chum salmon to escape.

These decisions included limiting fishing time in June, closing off certain areas to fishing, and developing an app for captains in the area to download that would be updated with chum and red salmon numbers. The app also alerts boats when limits have been reached, at which point the fleet is required to stop fishing. Additionally, in response to reports of “chum-chucking” or throwing chum salmon overboard to evade a salmon cap, Thompson claimed that there was more accountability in the fleet than ever before, since the Department of Fish and Game had more ways to observe fishermen – including drones, apparently.

However, Chief Brian Ridley of the Tanana Chief’s Conference, another invited testifier, argued that the decisions of the Department of Fish and Game – subject to the decisions of the Board of Fisheries – were not in line with the best interests of the residents of the Yukon. In response to the argument that it is not the Legislature’s place to override board decisions when constituents complain, Ridley disagreed.

“It is absolutely the duty of the Legislature to make decisions that are legally defensible and in the best interests of all Alaskans,” Ridley argued during his testimony segment.

The Yukon’s source in Canada makes the reduced number of chums an international issue, Ridley mentioned. Fishing treaties between the United States and Canada have been broken by the low numbers coming up the river. This sentiment was shared by Virgil Umphenour, a Fairbanks fishing and hunting guide and former member of the Board of Fisheries.

“They’re so depressed [in Canada] it’s unreal,” Umphenour said.

Finally, on the Senate floor, Senate Bill 107 passed 12-7. The bill, which changes the dividend formula to 25/75, and then to a 50/50 if $1.3 billion in new revenues are added with a minimum balance of $3.5 billion Constitutional Budget Reserve, is intended to help fill the fiscal gap.

If you watched Governor Mike Dunleavy’s (R – Alaska) press conference last week, you saw the spreadsheet tool intended to show what the fiscal situation would look like, given certain scenarios and potential taxes – yellow for dangerous, green for fiscally sound. When a 25/75 PFD was inputted, almost all the Excel spreadsheet cells went green, before Dunleavy quickly changed it back to 50/50. At any rate, the future of SB 107 doesn’t look terribly bright in the House.

With that – an oil tax bill, a fisheries bill, and a potential PFD formula shift – my second Juneau excursion comes to a close. As a sort of gimmicky writer by nature, reporting on bill hearings without inserting a whole bunch of shitty jokes and references to 90s alt rock felt strange, like putting on my socks inside out – but I like to think that some of you were informed about trapping bills and commercial fishery management systems.

The change in demeanor from the start of the session to the end of the session was palpable – people focusing more on the bills that will allow the state to keep running and spending money hand over fist. It’s Darwinian, in a sense: bills survive because of their utility, and the ones that don’t, die in committee or get pushed to the next session. Survival of the fittest – or at least of the ones that promise the most money. Eat or be eaten. Kill or be killed.

This is, in a way, the last state with politics that are actually interesting, and fun to watch and report on. Sure, Florida makes headlines for Desantis’ antics, but that doesn’t really count because culture war bullshit is separate from actual politics. After the thirtieth Fox News headline about how you can’t say gay in public and also Mickey Mouse is the devil, it all melts into a revolting slurry. Florida doesn’t count.

Part of our political appeal is due to the fact that we’re not a single party state – at least, not really. Another part of this is because so much of our time in the Legislature is spent debating a resource at the opposite end of the state, buried underground and shipped through one of the world’s most expensive industrial projects of all time. We’re the planet from “Avatar,” and our “unobtainium” is the lifeblood of the last frontier. It’s not an original observation by any means, but when you subtract out all the wacky culture war tomfoolery, we may be the last place left where you can blow into town, set up shop, and start passing bills. The American experiment lives on here, and no one can say how long it’ll be preserved.

At any rate, I had fun – getting drinks comped and having people tell me my thrown together cruise ship columns were interesting and wacky is, to a narcissistic personality like me, better than sex. Will there be a fiscal plan by mid-May? God only knows – and I hear He doesn’t spend a lot of time around the Senate Finance Committee room.

It has been a privilege.

The Intern

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1 year ago

I’m not sure you are doing sex right.