Less than a decade ago, Alaska faced a similar crossroads as it does today – with a similar cast of characters (some literally the same), many making poor life choices.
In April of 2006, the legislature was embroiled in oil tax discussions. The oil companies demanded the state amend the existing Economic Limit Factor (ELF) to set a 20 percent tax cap on net profits. Democrats objected, arguing that the top rate should be somewhere between 23 and 30 percent – reminding anyone within ear shot that every percentage point could represent state revenue exceeding one hundred million dollars.
The fight was legendary. People went to jail. The Corrupt Bastards Club became a household name, complete with embroidered baseball caps and novelty poker cards. Stories that sound more reasonable following “National Lampoons Presents” trickled up to Anchorage and are still being published, processed, and often quieted only with liquor.
In the end, a new system was set in place during a special session called by Frank Murkowski; the Petroleum Profits Tax (PPT). PPT taxed oil profits at a rate of 22.5 percent of their net value, instead of ELF’s gross value, and added progressivity whenever oil went above $40 per barrel.
Before the oil deal was done, a rising star was speaking on behalf of the growing concerned, who felt unrepresented in Juneau. In a letter to the Chamber of Commerce two months before PPT was passed, Sarah Palin tried to offer advice to the governor and legislature regarding how to deal with oil tax policy:
I’d remind officials if they find themselves struggling or confused, please simply reflect on the guidance provided by Alaska’s founders. Remember one’s oath of office where one has sworn to defend the unequivocal terms mandating development and conservation of natural resources for the maximum benefit of all Alaskans. Not Outside interests, but Alaska’s interests.
Wasilla’s former mayor was gaining notoriety for standing up to then-GOP State Chair Randy Ruedrich and Governor Murkowski. She became the reform candidate – and beat Murkowski by 31 points in that year’s Republican primary.
She kept on message during her inaugural speech.
At the start of the [Alaska Constitutional] Convention, delegate Bob Bartlett saw two distinct futures for Alaska: one of wise resource development leading to wealth and industry. One of servitude, stemming from loss of control over our resources, that leads to despair. They had a choice which route to go, as we do today: regress or progress….
[Bartlett] was warning against being exploited by outside interests because we were so resource rich. He said, ‘The taking of our resources without leaving reasonable return to support needed services will mean a betrayal in the administration of the peoples’ wealth.’
(Her successor, Sean Parnell, nodded along on stage behind her.)
Once in office, she lived up to the rhetoric. In 2007, ACES was adopted, raising the maximum tax rate to 25 percent, lowering the threshold for progressivity to $30 per barrel, strengthening the tax credit system to encourage competition and development, and guiding the state toward a durable, profitable, sustainable long term future of oil revenues. We offered credits for investment, and we shared an increase of revenue when oil companies’ profits were up.
Symbiotic relationships are neat.
Palin shook the hell out of us with a wake up call: Buck up, we’ve got work to do. We can do this, but it’s going to take all of us working together.
She radiated an independent, inclusive, and optimistic vision for the future; a far cry from the half-term quitter, drunk on celebrity, we’ve come to know post-vice presidential nod.
Now, it’s 2013. Last session, the legislature rejected the reforms Palin and state lawmakers had applied to oil taxes. The Parnell administration and majority in Juneau blew ACES up, complete with an annual price tag to the state – somewhere between $700 million and $2 billion.
We need a hero.
We might get two. But it’s going to be a very different ballgame this time around.
Sarah Palin framed the necessity of following our carefully crafted constitution when approaching oil taxes and natural resource development, reminding us that we were obliged by our guiding document to develop our state’s natural resources for the “maximum benefit of all Alaskans. Not Outside interests, but Alaska’s interests.”
It’s Our Oil.
Bob Bartlett was possibly the first to say it. Many – Wally Hickel, Jay Hammond, Vic Fischer, Sarah Palin, a drunk guy I got a signature from outside Fred Meyer one night – have echoed the refrain since. Someone has to take up that charge. Otherwise, no one does.
In a press release put out on August 1, Valdez Republican Bill Walker declared his candidacy for governor in 2014.
I am running for Governor to fight hard for Alaska without any hindrance due to party affiliation and without regard to the political consequences of my decisions and leadership. I will fight without limitation and will not stop fighting until we, as Alaskans, regain control of our state’s future.
Walker had originally announced back in April, but had intended to run in the GOP primary against incumbent Sean Parnell. Then he looked at polling data.
Unlike 2006, somehow the Alaska GOP, circa 2013, is dutifully blinking through the same Outside special interest giveaway that opened the door for Sarah Palin several years ago. Pollster Marc Hellenthal reported Parnell clocking in 40 points above Walker among primary voters.
That’s some impressive electoral cognitive dissonance.
Walker is a check-every-box kind of Alaskan candidate. Born in Fairbanks, his father fought in World War II, in the Aleutians. Before his mid-twenties, he was elected to serve on the Valdez city council. Before he was thirty, he was mayor. He moved to Anchorage in he 80s, where Walker and his wife have spent decades fighting for resource development that benefits Alaska. He is a small-c conservative and a capital-R Republican.
Despite the resume, GOP primary voters oddly seem to prefer former ConnocoPhillips lobbyist Sean Parnell.
Primary elections are designed to be the club vote, where the strongest candidate moves on to the general as the party’s representative. But 2010 overhauled the landscape. Tea party candidate Joe Miller upset incumbent Senator Lisa Murkowski. In 2012, several popular, long incumbent state legislators lost to tea party challengers on primary night.
The primary shifted from a healthy filtration process to a radical culling, where only the ideologically pure survive.
Sean Parnell says “growth” every three words, sues the federal government every other Tuesday, and signs secession-flavored laws at gun ranges. The governor moves on to the next round.
Walker relaunched his gubernatorial campaign last week as an independent.
No one on the hypothetical ticket is actually “Independent.”
The Democratic Party is not in a position of power. After 2012’s redistricting, the Republican Party picked up wild majorities in both the state house and senate. Now, there are rumors, editorials, and facebook pages popping up proposing that Walker back up his new and admittedly contradictory “Republican Independent” moniker by adding popular Democratic State Senator Bill Wielechowski to the ticket as Lieutenant Governor.
Wielechowski has taken the lead over the past couple of years defending ACES and taking on Governor Sean Parnell’s calls for tax reform – he’s played a more visible and vocal roll than even Walker.
Bill Wielechowski has also been the rumored Democratic candidate to go up against Sean Parnell. Last session, the Anchorage Democrat challenged the governor to a one-on-one debate over the administration’s oil tax proposal. He’s the party’s top prospect.
But being the strongest candidate in a weak party leaves a lot to be desired.
When Palin assumed the role of the reform candidate in 2006, she did so from within the confines of her own Republican Party. In a five-way primary, she locked in over half of the GOP base, before pivoting more to the center, picking up the votes that granted her an eight point win over Democratic challenger, Tony Knowles, in the general.
Walker (or Wielechowski) isn’t afforded the same luxury or traction that Palin had. Walker is starting off with minimal Republican support; a deficit that will need to be made up with Democratic and independent votes.
For the Walker/Wielechowski ticket to work, the Democratic Party would be forced to forego running their own candidate altogether. I’d imagine, as you read this, Democratic Party leadership is a step short of snorting lines of Prilosec, mulling over their options.
Simply slapping Wielechowski on the ticket as Governor Lite – where he’ll protect the state seal and smile at you from the other side of campaign literature – far from guarantees that Walker will legislate satisfactorily to Democrats. Many will find it a tall order to ask everyone to the left of the Joe Miller fanbase to start negotiations off at the center-right, backing a candidate who ran the Parental Notice initiative out of his office the last run.
On the other hand, hearing words spoken by the “independent” candidate Bill Walker – who Democrats are being asked to support with their full weight and possible future relevance – may signify the last hope any of us have at a return to rational governance:
“Our allegiance to party affiliation materializes in bad legislation being passed in Juneau, snubs to the President of the United States while in Alaska, and placement of Alaska’s future in someone else’s hands. Alaska is better than this.”
I hope we are. I’d like to think we are. Wouldn’t that be neat?