With the primaries over, and the candidates from their respective parties (plus a peppering of independents) selected, the rush to November is underway.
Because of redistricting in Alaska, 59 of the state legislature’s 60 seats are up for grabs, providing seemingly endless opportunities for special interests to stimulate campaign coffers and annoy us during television and radio commercial breaks.
The topic of discussion, since Sean Parnell assumed the governorship and was promptly re-elected to his first official term, has been oil taxation. The deliberations will return to the forefront when Juneau gavels in this January.
Now is the time for candidates to make their case for either side of the issue, while lightly dancing around other less-prescient issues that voters, for some reason, still care about – like education, reproductive rights, health care, workers’ rights, gun rights, prison reform, corporate personhood, discrimination, renewable energy, the role of government, jobs, returning veterans, and maybe even a constitutional convention.
You know, the small stuff that takes precedent behind what very rich dudes in suits take home.
Last Thursday, students at the University of Alaska Anchorage kicked off post-primary debate season with an event sponsored by the College Republicans, College Democrats, and Young Americans for Liberty. Hosted by conservative talk show host Casey Reynolds, the program boasted a majority of candidates for Anchorage and Mat-Su seats. The first portion was granted to the state house candidates.
Something should be said immediately about the venue. This was not broadcast on network news, or heavily advertised. It wasn’t a big pick-up for votes. The majority of the 50 or so attendees were not super-voters or maximum donors. There wasn’t a harvest for undecided voters. A good chunk of attendees were campaign volunteers and students looking to pick up some extra credit.
In an age of streamlining the electorate; boiling it down to a rigid number (plus one) that wins the race – these candidates took the time to afford students a look into who they might be voting for, and they should be applauded for it. Some, most notably Representatives Les Gara and Lance Pruitt, made the most of it. Others – well – at least they showed up.
Lance Pruitt attended UAA as a student. He said it was great to be back, albeit awkward from his new vantage point on the stage instead of the audience, and thanked the students for hosting the event. As the Republican incumbent seeking a second term in office, running in the newly coined East Anchorage District 25 against another incumbent, Democrat Pete Petersen, Pruitt emphasized that he wanted to have a discussion with the college-aged crowd:
“There’s some things we can do to give us a great future. We just need to act on some of those things now. So, if any of you have questions, feel free to ask me afterward, because I want to make sure that I’m open for you.”
Les Gara has represented downtown Anchorage since 2003. He appealed directly to a college demographic that personally understood the hardships surrounding a college education:
“I have a core value, and my core value is that everybody deserves opportunity in this world, regardless of whether you’re born with money. That means college aid for people who can’t afford college.”
He advocated for a statewide pre-K program and pledged to keep pushing for it.
“A child’s brain develops very, very early, and those children who don’t start learning until it’s too late are succeeding at very poor rates.”
Both candidates were on their game and served themselves well.
As expected, the conversation quickly turned to natural resources and the state’s role in developing them. Candidate Jimmy Crawford, a Republican running for an open seat against current Anchorage Assemblywoman Harriet Drummond, commented on what he believed the legislature must take on next session.
“The oil taxation system, as it stands right now, is stifling production….we need to be revamping the system. What I would like to propose is to repeal ACES as it stands and replace it instead…with a production-based oil taxation system; a sliding scale that gives direct incentive for producers to produce to the state’s needed levels.”
The production-based incentive program, debated and ultimately scrapped by the legislature, granted oil companies what one expert testified as “perverse incentives.” HB110 afforded tax breaks to companies producing over a ten-year span, but also bundled that with other tax breaks for current production – without any guarantee of long term investment and increased production. The policy would drop yearly revenue by roughly $1.5 billion (based on $110/barrel oil), according to the same energy consultant.
That’s quite a gamble. Production tax credits are fine as a tool to be discussed, but they have to be accompanied by tangible safeguards and honestly approached as the long term investment schemes that they would amount to.
Drummond reminded those in attendance that any reform the legislature makes to ACES must reconcile with the Alaska State Constitution. “The number one priority in the Constitution is to develop our resources for the benefit of Alaska’s people, and it’s our job to maximizing that benefit.”
Fittingly, the next question delved into what it means to be considered “people.” Rep. Gara was asked to define corporate personhood.
“I don’t believe corporations are people. I believe people are people. The Supreme Court… issued its ruling in Citizens United saying that corporations could put unlimited amounts of money into the election system to buy people’s votes. I think it [was] a mistake and I think it’s damaged this country’s election process incredibly…. People donate based on the things that people believe in; corporations donate based upon what their corporation wants. That skews the system in favor of those with huge amounts of money, dilutes the vote of people who don’t have huge amounts of money, because, frankly, if you donate $25 and Exxon puts in a million dollars into a campaign, they have more influence than you do.” – Rep. Les Gara
The answer earned him the largest applause of the night, thanks in large part to an audience who’s age mirrors the Colbert Report’s primary demographic – the comedy news show has covered corporate personhood and the influence of money on politics with more ferocity and due attention than most of the media – with exceptions – writ large. But in an election where monied interests share the benefit of the central issue of the day being oil tax reform with a once in a decade opportunity to buy an entire legislature (at a bargain price), the importance of discussing growing corporate influence should be as important as the policy it is attempting to buy.
Gara’s opponent, Cris Eichenlaub, agreed, and strengthened his point with my personal favorite line of the night:
“Corporations are a construct of society to perform a service. They’re more like a golem. They’re servants to society; they perform a specific role. The words ‘too big to fail’ come to mind when I think of golems. When they’re weak and servants they’re great, but when they’re too big and too powerful, they can be dangerous.”
Kudos to Mr. Eichenlaub for very creatively nailing it. And the look of the confusion on the faces of Laura Reinbold and Lance Pruitt, as their brains processed whether or not their Republican colleague had just compared corporations to mythical creatures from medieval writing, was absolutely hilarious.
Seriously, watch the video again and note the squirming.
About The Author
John Aronno is a co-founder and managing editor at Alaska Commons, 2013 Alaska Press Club Award winner for best political reporting print-small, and recipient of the 2010 Alaska Press Club’s Suzan Nightengale Award for Best Columnist in a small paper. Aronno has had his work featured in the Huffington Post, the Anchorage Press, the Alaska Dispatch, and the Rachel Maddow Show, and is listed among the state's top reporters on the Washington Post's "The Fix." He writes the weekly column “On Politics” for Alaska Commons.