Managing Editor

AJOC EDITORIAL: Read their lips: No new taxes

With operating budgets passed in the House and Senate but not yet funded, at least one thing is now clear: Gov. Bill Walker’s proposals to raise taxes on individuals and businesses by nearly $460 million in the next fiscal year aren’t going anywhere. Senate Finance Co-Chair Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, couldn’t have been more blunt — or, frankly, rude — in response to a question about how the Legislature plans to pay for the fiscal year 2017 spending that figures to outpace revenue by $3.7 billion. At a Finance Committee press conference March 15, Kelly took the opportunity of a question that did not mention taxes to state unequivocally that he has no intention of plumbing a well to the private sector to fill whatever gap remains once some means of drawing from Permanent Fund earnings is chosen. Kelly noted he was speaking for himself, but with all but one of Walker’s proposed tax hikes still sitting in committee or yet to receive a hearing, there can be little doubt his opinion represents the Republican majorities. The only tax proposal that has moved out of its original committee is the doubling of the fuel tax from its current national low of 8 cents per gallon that is projected to raise about $49 million per year. The increase has received a large amount of support from stakeholders in the transportation industry who recognize the importance of maintaining the infrastructure on which their livelihoods depends. Of all Walker’s tax proposals, it’s also the fairest and most broad-based, especially at today’s depressed fuel prices. The Legislature still has a heavy lift ahead to select a means to use the Permanent Fund earnings and because it won’t raise additional revenue through taxes, the majority in the House is going to have to cut some deals with the minority Democrats in order to draw from the Constitutional Budget Reserve, or CBR. And just as an aside, Kelly and fellow Finance Co-Chair Anna MacKinnon, R-Eagle River, attempted to argue that a budget paid for with the Earnings Reserve and the CBR is “balanced.” A budget is balanced when revenue covers expenses. A budget that relies on savings is funded. There’s a huge difference, and as far as spin goes it can’t turn a pinwheel in a hurricane. Nevertheless, the majorities are correct that it is far better to make a relatively small draw from the CBR than it is to kick Alaska’s economic drivers in the guts while they’re down. The oil industry that’s propped up Alaska’s government spending for nearly 40 years is always a juicy target — for this governor in particular — but no knowledgeable observer could look at the daily stream of news about layoffs, delayed projects and idled rigs and think raising taxes on its members by some $100 million as Walker has proposed is anything but a terrible idea. Alaska’s most valuable fishery with the greatest number of workers — salmon — is in the midst of its own price crisis yet Walker wants to extract $18 million out of the industry by raising every fish tax. Minerals prices have also trended lower, and global sluggishness is reducing demand along with other factors such as transitions away from coal that caused Usibelli to halt exports last year. The governor and his Revenue Department asked the University of Alaska Institute of Social and Economic Research to study the effects of budget cuts on the broader economy. That ISER’s original analysis did not consider the impacts of private sector job losses was a glaring omission that still managed to be revealing. What we can see from the ISER study is that government job losses have a multiplier effect of less than one. A loss of 900 government jobs results in a loss of about 700 indirect jobs. ISER may not have looked at private sector losses and their multipliers, but the McDowell Group has done plenty of work in this arena over the years. What McDowell Group has found is that every direct job in oil production creates an additional nine in the private sector. When the role of oil taxes are accounted for, each oil industry job pays for another 10 state and local government jobs. Mining and fishing have 2-to-1 job multipliers according to various McDowell Group studies. Breaking it down, the Legislature’s priorities should be clear: Preserving private sector jobs is more important than preserving public sector jobs. As a business publication, we don’t want anyone to lose their job, but this is the tradeoff the state faces. Walker may not like it — and he’s certainly welcome to go out and advocate for taxing Alaskan incomes at a $400 million annualized rate — but refusing to raise taxes during an economic downturn is the right call from the Legislature. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]  

AJOC EDITORIAL: Moda’s big Obamacare bet goes bust

Moda Health went all in on Obamacare, and it is now short-stacked and heading for the rail. On Jan. 29, the Alaska Division of Insurance followed suit of its counterpart in Oregon by suspending Moda from operating in the state due to its rapidly deteriorating financial condition caused by massive losses incurred operating in the health insurance exchanges created by the ill-named Affordable Care Act commonly known as Obamacare. Moda’s suspension leaves Alaska with only Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield offering individual health insurance policies. The Oregonian reported this past October on Portland-based Moda pulling out of the insurance markets in Washington and California after the company announced it would receive only $11 million of the $90 million it was expecting from the federal government to cover its losses from the exchanges. As the company sought a 25 percent premium increase in Oregon, it had also asked for and received a 39.6 percent increase for its Alaska policies. Premera received approval for a similarly large increase of 38.7 percent for 2016, citing losses from the policies sold in the state. In 2014, Premera lost $9 million serving the individual Alaska policyholders, and a similar loss of $9 million was projected for 2015 based on claims cost data in the first three months. “The bottom line is that we see another year of significant losses,” Premera spokeswoman Melanie Coon told the Journal last August. “It’s not getting any better.” Insurers across the country are warning they will consider pulling out of the insurance exchanges next year if the situation does not improve. The nation’s largest, UnitedHealth Group, is among those, and Aetna recently reported that it lost $100 million last year from its exchange business. Herbert Stein’s Law states: “That which cannot continue, won’t.” Insurers are not going to sit back and continue to lose hundreds of millions of dollars, which should be of grave concern in a state with one company that is currently losing money in the Obamacare exchanges. So what’s going on here? It starts with the way the Obama administration got insurance companies to buy in to the law in the first place. The ACA created a “risk corridor” by which the companies agreed to pay the government for profits in excess of their estimates for the year and if they lost money, the government would bail them out. Remember, Obamacare was sold as deficit-neutral at worst, and a deficit-reducer at best. Over and over we heard the pitch that it was going to save the country money (part of those “savings” came from the government taking over the student loan business, but that’s a whole ‘nother column). Well, Republicans in Congress led by presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio inserted language into the 2015 and 2016 spending bills that prohibited the Department of Health and Human Services from using discretionary funds to bail out insurance company losses from the exchanges. In other words, they held the Obama administration to its pledge that the ACA would not add to the deficit. Here’s how the Fiscal Times reported the results in December: “Last year, the insurance companies paid just $362 million into risk corridor program while submitting $2.87 billion in claims for reimbursement … The fiscal 2015 budget package approved last year specified that payments made to insurers under the risk corridors could not exceed collections. That is why the (DHHS’s) payouts this year were equivalent to just 12.6 percent of the claims.” President Barack Obama signed every bill with these spending restrictions, so while he may have vetoed the bill to repeal his namesake law, he did sign the bills that may have started its death spiral. Moda entered the Oregon market with the lowest premiums in 2014, betting on getting its losses covered by the federal government and gaining 100,000 customers in the process. It even signed a 10-year, $40 million naming rights deal for the basketball arena in Portland just a couple years after only clearing $10.4 million in net income. Barely two years later its bet went bust. Moda may be one of the biggest losers so far to gamble on Obamacare, but it will surely not be the last. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

AJOC EDITORIAL: Time for Penney to drop vendetta against setnetters

Bob Penney is now 0 for 2 at the Alaska Supreme Court in his efforts to reallocate Cook Inlet salmon stocks at the ballot box, but he’s not giving up the fight against commercial fishermen. It’s past time that he did after some three decades of dividing the community with his nonstop efforts to drive his neighbors out of business and turn the Kenai River into his personal playpen. After the court emphatically rejected his ballot initiative that would ban setnetting from Cook Inlet beaches on Dec. 31, Penney released a statement that, “Maybe it’s time the federal government looked into this issue.” Later, Clark Penney, the executive director of the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance started by his grandfather to push the initiative back in November 2013, said the group is looking into pursuing an Endangered Species Act listing for Kenai River king salmon. Anyone can petition for such a listing, but AFCA will have no better luck with the ESA than it had at the Alaska Supreme Court. Abundance of the late run of Kenai River kings is no doubt at a low point, but the stock has never failed to meet its escapement goal and in fact returned in strong enough numbers to allow all user groups more liberal harvest opportunity in 2015. The early run of Kenai River kings, on the other hand, has failed repeatedly in recent years to meet minimum escapement goals and was closed to all sportfishing in the past two years. Notice it hasn’t been closed to commercial fishing. That’s because commercial fishermen haven’t been in the water during the early run for decades as the stock abundance cratered under heavy pressure from the guided angler industry. That’s something Penney and his like-minded friends don’t ever talk about because they can’t blame it on commercial fishing. Oh, but they can spin a fish tale, though, and never was Penney’s win-at-all-costs mentality more evident than last legislative session when his advocacy outfit led a misleading smear campaign against a well-respected member of the Kenai Peninsula community who’d been nominated to the Board of Fisheries. The successful effort by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association to defeat Soldotna habitat advocate Robert Ruffner by a single vote based on a made-up criteria about not living in Anchorage and a ridiculous accusation that he was some kind of Manchurian candidate of the commercial fishing industry was the last straw for many in the community who saw his candidacy as an opportunity to break up what had become a polarized board dominated by factions instead of facts. KRSA, which is based in Soldotna, claims to be a conservation organization. The words “Kenai River” are in its name. Yet they waged a public relations war against a neighbor and conservationist despite his widespread endorsements from the local legislative delegation, municipal governments, and chambers of commerce. And they won, as they often have in the Cook Inlet fish wars they keep fueling. A similarly dishonest campaign was waged two years earlier, and succeeded in getting board member Vince Webster booted by an identical 30-29 vote. At both the 2011 and 2014 Upper Cook Inlet meetings, KRSA was able to essentially write the management plan for the Kenai River. In 2011, the group’s proposal severed the historical split between setnetters and drifters, turning what had typically been a 50-50 ratio into a 2-1 gap amounting to millions of dollars in reallocation. In 2014, KRSA was able to go further, getting the board to adopt a plan that removed almost all discretion from the day-to-day fishery managers in favor of the arbitrary hours and so-called “paired restrictions” designed to render setnetting uneconomic. One of the most damaging provisions KRSA was able to push through was a rule that after Aug. 1 the Department of Fish and Game must still restrict commercial fishing if the king salmon escapement is projected to be less than 22,500. That is the mid-point of the escapement goal, or 50 percent above the minimum. Last year, with the king salmon escapement goal ensured of being met, the sockeye run showed up in force at record late dates, and millions of dollars worth of fish went unharvested in August because of a rule in the management plan that has no basis in science but instead reflects the political muscle of KRSA to get what it wants at the Board of Fisheries. Penney couldn’t influence the Supreme Court with campaign donations and a Kenai River Classic perk package, though, and this time he’s going to have to take “no” for an answer. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

AJOC EDITORIAL: Time to put up or shut up for Legislature

With just a couple weeks to go until the next legislative session begins, Alaska’s elected officials have a hefty to-do list. In no particular order, here it is: • Restructuring the Permanent Fund earnings in order to use a portion to pay for state government, and possibly reducing the annual citizens’ dividend. • Considering whether to raise or institute new taxes. • Cutting spending. • Reaffirming approval for the sale of pension-obligation bonds; and deciding whether to fund the capital budget with general obligation bonds subject to voters’ approval. • Allocating $15.7 billion in payments-in-lieu-of taxes, or PILT, between the state and municipalities for the Alaska LNG Project. • Reforming the oil tax credit program, and possibly raising or hardening the production tax floor. • Dealing with the Anchorage Legislative Information Office hot potato. • Funding the expanded class of Medicaid recipients that the House and Senate majorities are currently suing the governor to overturn. • Approving Alaska LNG Project fiscal terms, commercial agreements and a constitutional amendment securing those terms to be presented to voters in November. Any one or combination of the above items would bog down a Legislature that has gone down to the last minute or overtime just to pass budgets in healthy fiscal years. Taken in total mere months from a statewide general election, it would be wildly optimistic to expect a series of profiles in courage to be written from the halls of the Capitol in Juneau. Both sides are going to have to be realistic. Republicans should know they can’t cut enough, and Democrats should drop their incessant insistence on raising oil taxes. Reforming the credit program or hardening the tax floor is one thing; pretending that there’s some vast supply of money on the Slope that can be tapped at $35 per barrel is not. Republicans have stated Gov. Bill Walker’s budget doesn’t cut operating spending enough, by only $100 million compared to their desire for a $400 million reduction. If they can cut operating spending by another $300 million compared to Walker’s budget, it would eliminate the need for $200 million in revenue from a state income tax. Whether they have a plan or the wherewithal to execute such a reduction remains to be seen. If the Republicans can’t propose a budget that balances, or choose to move some of the Constitutional Budget Reserve into the Permanent Fund Earnings Reserve as part of the restructuring to fund government, then the House minority Independent Democrat caucus will still have the same leverage it exerted last session to protect its members’ funding priorities such as education or Medicaid expansion. Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, has said some in the majorities could be comfortable with a budget that doesn’t fully close the $3.5 billion gap, which could be a preferable compromise between not slashing state spending to the bone while reducing the annual draw from the CBR to a much smaller level. With a 15-5 advantage in the Senate, Meyer can pass such a plan without Democrats; such is not the case in the House. If the Republicans don’t want to raise or create taxes to fully close the deficit, the House majority is going to have to work far more constructively with the minority than it did last year when, at an impasse, the leadership proposed to transfer the entire Earnings Reserve into the Permanent Fund to eliminate the requirement for a three-quarters vote to pull from the CBR. Democrats are correct to be concerned that new taxes, higher taxes and a reduced dividend will impact low income Alaskans disproportionately. Taken in total, Walker’s fiscal plan would remove some $1.15 billion — $500 million in taxes, $650 million from the dividend payout — from the private economy to help fund government. But funding government is also a Democrat priority, and they’re not going to be able to have it both ways. Republicans are also correct that taking money out of the private sector and disrupting the oil tax system for the fifth time in 10 years is likely to chill investment and economic output at a time when state government can least afford it. None of the options are good, but legislators will have to remember what Hyman Roth said in The Godfather Part II: “This is the business we’ve chosen.” If they’re not ready to make the hard choices and compromise, the voters may send them into another line of work. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

AJOC EDITORIAL: Breaking LIO lease will signal state can’t be trusted

Legislators were rightly concerned when Gov. Bill Walker, without warning, vetoed $200 million in appropriations from the current fiscal year budget designated for the oil and gas tax credit program. Walker noted at the time — and his Revenue Commissioner Randall Hoffbeck had to spend a lot of time in the aftermath reiterating to the financial community — that the State of Alaska was not reneging on its obligation to pay the credits. The consequences of not honoring its debts would be terrible for a state trying to protect its top-notch AAA credit rating as it faces multi-billion deficits and now plans to finance its $13 billion share of the Alaska LNG Project. Yet here the Legislature is, through its Legislative Council that handles out-of-session affairs for the body, contemplating breaking a 10-year lease for its downtown Anchorage office building. Like all leases the state government enters, payment is “subject to appropriation,” meaning it can break the lease simply by refusing to pay the rent.  The Senate passed an operating budget last session that withheld the rent payment while the House passed a budget that did. That early April action by the Senate was so concerning that it spurred the Alaska Bankers Association to convene a meeting of its seven member institutions on Easter Sunday to craft a letter to the budget conference co-chairs Sen. Pete Kelly and Rep. Mark Neuman. The language was not ambiguous. ABA President Steve Lundgren of Denali State Bank wrote that, “We alert you that this action will likely impact the State’s credit worthiness and the cost of borrowing in the future.” Lundgren closed with this: “Alaska should not put itself in the position of having to react to a narrative that it will not live up to its commitments. How long creditors would remain accommodating is a great question to which we do not have the answer. What we do know is that some ideas have unintended consequences, and the current funding proposal would be as a good a bellwether as any signaling a risk aversion to the greater credit markets.” Thomas F. Klinker of the law firm Birch Horton Bittner & Cherot, was similarly blunt, citing Moody’s Investor Service guidance that states that “depending on the circumstances involved in a lessee’s decision to not appropriate, this risk could be reflected in that entity’s other debt ratings, including its general obligation and other tax-supported debt.” Klinker noted that while it is true the lease on the Legislative Information Office is not securitized, “a decision to not appropriate rent for the lease without a specific justification, such as the lessor’s failure to perform, could have a similar adverse effect.” He further stated that breaking the lease — which in this case is being contemplated for no reason other than public scrutiny, not because the state lacks the ability to pay — “could be considered material to investors in future state financings, and a required subject of disclosure to prospective investors in such financings under federal securities law, particularly financings based on a lease that is subject to annual appropriation.” Not only is the state considering financing its capital budget for the next two years with general obligation bonds, but Walker has also proposed issuing pension obligation bonds to help cover the 11-figure unfunded liabilities of the public employee and teachers retirement systems. Pension obligation bonds are also “subject to annual appropriation.” Hoffbeck said in a recent interview that while the Legislature has previously approved the issuance of such pension bonds in 2008, a new vote would reassure investors the state would make good on payment if the bonds are sold. “If the Legislature is not willing to voice support of it, we don’t want that kind of noise going into the market when we try to sell bonds,” Hoffbeck said. In other words, if the Legislature won’t pay what it owes on something as small as a $3.3 million annual appropriation, investors aren’t going to lend the state money to finance billions of dollars in bonds or they will do so at much greater interest rates. It is irrelevant at this point whether the decision to renovate and improve the downtown office space was right or not. The fact is the Legislature signed a contract and it should live up to it. If the Legislature can’t make what’s a difficult but necessary decision to pay its debts, how in the world will its members find the intestinal fortitude to do what needs to be done to put the state on a more sustainable fiscal path? A shortsighted action bowing to political pressure or just the optics of the whole thing will signal to private investors that the state can’t be trusted when times get tough, and they sure aren’t getting easier any time soon. Given the circumstances we find ourselves, that should be the last way the Legislature wants to ring in the new year. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

AJOC EDITORIAL: Tax credit program would benefit from transparency

When the Legislature finally adjourned after a second special session to pass a budget this past spring, about 20 percent of the approximately $3.5 billion deficit was related to payments from the state’s oil and gas tax credit program. Unlike deductions, which the large producers use on a per-barrel basis to reduce their tax liabilities, the credits are direct payments from the state to mostly independent companies exploring for oil and gas in Cook Inlet and the North Slope. Gov. Bill Walker roiled the industry and lending circles with his move in late June to use his line item veto authority to reduce a $700 million appropriation for the credits by $200 million, deferring the payments to future fiscal years. The short-term effect was a credit freeze between lenders and explorers that required damage control by the state Revenue Commissioner Randall Hoffbeck to assure financial institutions and private equity firms that Alaska would make good on the payments owed. That’s according to the report released Dec. 1 by the Senate Oil and Gas Tax Credit Working Group formed among members of the Senate Majority and Minority member Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage. The report was short on recommendations to actually reduce the annual outlays and focused more on going slow with any changes so as not to disrupt projects in the development stage, protecting the state’s interests should a company go into bankruptcy as Buccaneer Energy and Cook Inlet Energy have, and firming up the tax “floor” on production taxes so companies cannot use a net operating loss, or NOL, deduction to reduce their liability to less than 4 percent. Cementing the tax floor seems to be a no-brainer and should be an easy fix by requiring companies to spread the NOL out over multiple years if necessary to ensure a minimum production tax is received. Ultimately, though, there is no silver bullet to fix Alaska’s revenue problem at the current oil prices under any current or prior tax system. Without question the oil and gas credits, or rebates, require examination along with every expenditure the state is making. There is also no question that the state’s oil and gas credit system has major successes to tout. The Cook Inlet gas supply resurgence led by Hilcorp would not have happened absent the credit system, nor would the recent start of gas production by Furie Operating Alaska that is now delivering gas to Homer Electric Association at a lesser price than some of Hilcorp’s customers from the first new production platform seen in Cook Inlet in more than three decades.  Looking to the North Slope, the independent Caelus is currently developing the Nuna prospect it acquired from Pioneer Natural Resources in 2014, and is scheduled for production in 2017. Hilcorp has entered also the fray by purchasing some smaller BP assets and has now submitted a development plan for the Liberty offshore field that could produce 60,000 to 70,000 barrels per day by 2020. The majors are also spending money on the Slope despite the price crash. ConocoPhillips has spent $1.5 billion developing Drillsite 2S in Kuparuk and the CD-5 field in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. It also just sanctioned a billion-dollar project at Greater Moose’s Tooth-1, also in the NPR-A. When companies continue to spend money in the current price environment and bid on acreage as many independents did at the recent state Slope lease sale, something is working. While we can piece together a rough picture of how credits may be benefitting the state economy, the credit program needs to be more transparent. The public has a right to know how much in credits is being paid out and for what projects. That is the only way to tell if the state is getting something back for what it is spending. The working group reached a rather strange conclusion in its recommendations to disclose the amount of credits paid by project, but not the recipient of the credits. It is hard to understand what difference it would make to withhold the recipient of the credit while disclosing the project for which it was paid. Under the since-discontinued film tax credit program, the public was able to see the project, the recipient, the amount of the credit and the qualifying expenditures that led to the credit. If the oil and gas industry really wants to see this program continue, they should be disclosing how much they’re spending, what they’re spending it on, and how many people in Alaska are being hired as a result. A simple return on investment analysis of credits relative to production taxes does not capture things like local wages, their multiplier effects or the economic impact of ratepayers in Homer or elsewhere benefitting from lower utility costs. The best way to ensure a stable credit system continues — and it must continue — is to make it more transparent.
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