OPINION: 2019 from A to Z
After the year Alaska has had, it really was no choice between an “A to Z” column or a “naughty or nice” for my Year in Review.
The following contains a few light jabs, but the naughty list has pretty well been chronicled in this space all year and well, pretty much includes everybody.
So without further ado, the time-honored and far-from-original Year in Review from A-to-Z.
A is for AFN, ASRC and ANWR: A recent analysis of Facebook posts tabbed Dec. 11 as “breakup day”, which wasn’t far off from the biggest news to end the year. On Dec. 16 the news broke that Arctic Slope Regional Corp., the state’s largest company, is exiting the Alaska Federation of Natives.
No official reason has been given yet, but the most obvious is the climate change emergency resolution that AFN adopted at its annual meeting in October over the strenuous objections of the ASRC board chair.
The Arctic Slope Native Association was a driving force in the creation of AFN, which has become the strongest organization of the nation’s first people over the past 60 years.
But ultimately, ASRC, heavily invested in the oil and gas business, knows exactly how the North Slope Borough has achieved a poverty rate of just 11 percent that ranks well better than the state and national averages. The company’s first obligation is to its shareholders and meeting those responsibilities may no longer align with the official position of AFN.
B is for Budget: The year began with half the Legislature in disarray until the House coalesced around opposition to Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s first budget that proposed more than $1 billion in budget cuts. The year ends with the Legislature befuddled as Dunleavy put the budget ball in its hands with a proposal of no cuts and a huge draw from savings to balance.
Legislative leaders pounded their chests all year about their superiority as the appropriators under the constitution. Dunleavy’s budget will force them to deliver on that power.
C is for Chief(s) of Staff: Tuckerman Babcock, Dunleavy’s first chief of staff, barely made it eight months on the job before being axed in favor of the far more politically savvy Ben Stevens. Babcock’s infamous and unnecessary “loyalty pledge” letters to non-union state employees robbed Dunleavy of any kind of honeymoon before he was even inaugurated and set the tone for a tumultuous early tenure in office.
D is for Dividend: For the fourth year in a row, the statutory dividend formula was disregarded as the Legislature settled on an amount of just more than $1,600 achieved only by draining the last couple hundred million from the Statutory Budget Reserve. Without that move and hundreds of millions in cuts, the PFD could have been as low as $600. Now without any cuts and fewer options, buying off enough Alaskans in an election year will be a tricky lift for legislators who want to keep their jobs.
E is for ExxonMobil, which signed an agreement to pursue shipping LNG directly off the Arctic coast from the Point Thomson field. Although the company agreed to put $10 million toward finishing a the FERC permitting process for the Alaska LNG Project, the move to explore Arctic shipping is essentially the final nail in the effort to monetize North Slope gas with an export pipeline through Alaska.
F is for Furie Operating Alaska, which struggled to meet gas supply agreements and its debt obligations, and certainly wasn’t helped by never receiving some $105 million in tax credit payments from the state, declared bankruptcy in August and was bought by Gov. Bill Walker’s former oil and gas advisor John Hendrix.
G is for Galvin: Only in Alaska can coming within a few points of beating the unbeatable Rep. Don Young count as a qualification to run again, but that’s Alyse Galvin’s best talking point so far. Alaskans have refused to replace the Dean of the House for decades now, and going from No. 1 in seniority to No. 435 doesn’t seem any more likely in a year with both President Donald Trump and Sen. Dan Sullivan on the ballot.
H is for Hilcorp: The Houston independent made a blockbuster deal in August with BP to buy all its Alaska assets for $5.6 billion. While many have praised Hilcorp for its ability to rejuvenate old fields, of which Prudhoe Bay certainly qualifies, unanswered questions remain about what its state workforce will look like and whether the public will get to peek at the private company’s financial records.
I is for Independent in Name Only: House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, a longtime Democrat, changed his political affiliation to Independent in a cosmetic move to cement a majority with members of the Republican Party.
J is for John Sturgeon: The long-running “hovercraft” case finally came to an end with a win in the second try at the Supreme Court that upheld Alaska’s — and Alaskans’ — rights under federal law. While the victory was rightly celebrated, less discussed was a burdensome system in our country that can require millions of dollars and years of time that few possess to achieve justice.
K is for Kinross: The owners of the Fort Knox gold mine celebrated a milestone in October with the eight millionth ounce poured at the mine that began operating 23 years ago. Another bright spot for the industry is that for the second year in a row, mineral exploration topped $150 million in Alaska.
L is for Laid Up: As the year winds down, six of the state’s 11 ferries are either laid up or for sale. Maintenance costs are skyrocketing, revenue is falling and nobody seems to have a good answer about how to preserve a system that is still responsible for serving tens of thousands of Alaskans.
M is for Murkowski: Alaska’s senior U.S. senator is still no big fan of a lot of what President Trump says and does, and isn’t afraid to say so herself, the fact that House Democrats haven’t come close to moving her toward considering impeachment may be the best indication of how pathetic their case is.
N is for North Slope Renaissance: Production dropped below the 500,000 barrels per day benchmark in 2019, but help is on the way. Permitting continues to advance for the burgeoning Pikka project and ConocoPhillips’ Willow in the NPR-A. Spending, exploration and jobs are up; and Colorado wildcatter Bill Armstrong is back in a big way after snapping up 1 million acres for more than $10.5 million at the Dec. 11 lease sale.
O is for Oil: This is a no-brainer in Alaska, but for most of the year North Slope Crude was also the most expensive in the world, often trading at as much as $2 premium to the Brent benchmark.
P is for Per Diem: Despite passing a law in 2018 that would prevent legislators from collecting per diem for every day past the constitutional limit without an operating budget, lawmakers voted to cut themselves the checks anyway. While every legislator who voted for it and took it deserves a rhetorical rap on the knuckles, the worst has to be Rep. David Eastman of Wasilla, who contributes nothing to the Legislature and was involved in no budget talks yet was one of just a handful who claimed the maximum amount.
Q is for Questions: While it is normal for governors to roll out their budgets with the aid of commissioners on hand to discuss specifics, ducking out of the room after 11 minutes is not. Gov. Dunleavy’s declared mission to communicate better in his second year went unfulfilled on Dec. 11 as he left reporters hanging.
R is for Recall: In barely a month, backers of a campaign to recall Dunleavy gathered nearly 50,000 signatures only to find their petition unceremoniously dumped by Attorney General Kevin Clarkson. The battle is destined for the Supreme Court and a precedent-setting decision that will determine whether Alaska will witness the first statewide recall in its history and just how high of a bar needs to be cleared to put a state with enough problems through such a divisive process.
S is for Share: As in “Fair Share,” the tiresome mantra of the never-ending campaign to raise oil taxes. Yet another initiative could be on the ballot this coming year, this time with a proposed hike of some $1 billion or more per year. Proponents claim it will have no negative impact on the major developments underway, but anyone who believes that can line up to make bids on a bridge over the Knik Arm.
T is for Tariffs: As Alaska’s seafood industry deals with tariffs imposed by China amid its trade war with President Trump, increases are proposed at the Port of Alaska to pay for needed repairs. The state caught a break last year when the aging port in Anchorage didn’t collapse amid the fury of a 7.1 magnitude earthquake and hundreds of significant aftershocks, but time is running out to fix what is easily the second-most important piece of infrastructure in the state ranking only behind the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System.
U is for Unemployment Rate: The state is currently at a record low number, although economists will point out the decline in the state’s workforce as a key factor in reducing the rate. Nevertheless, the state has been gaining jobs slowly as it crawls out of the longest recession in its history.
V is for Visitors: In what’s become an annual bright spot for the economy, tourism numbers continue to set records led by expanded sailings from the world’s major cruise companies, many who are making investments to better serve a burgeoning base of customers visiting the Last Frontier.
W is for Wasilla: Bizarre scenes unfolded over the summer as about three dozen legislators went to Juneau in defiance of Dunleavy’s call to Wasilla, while the rest sat at desks in a middle school gym in Wasilla. Futile votes to overturn were cast down south while those up north did little more than recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
X is for Xtreme Measures: OK, “X” always screws up the A-Z column. But the state’s goofy plan to ask for $60,000 in donations from the public for Real ID services in rural Alaska — after the governor proposed a $1 billion supplemental budget — deserved a mention somewhere.
Y is for Young: The only member of Congress who can invite a camera crew along on a tour of cannabis businesses, Don Young just keeps going. Whether it ever gets out of the Senate or not, one achievement of Young this year was to get 331 votes in the House to repeal federal banking rules to allow business with the cannabis industry. Young doesn’t believe in smoking pot, but he does believe in states’ rights.
Z is for Zaletel: Anchorage Assembly Member Meg Zaletel proposed shifting about $2 million in the city’s budget for the coming year to address its unending homeless crisis, but only managed about a third of that in the final vote. Democrats, who are represented by the mayor and a super majority on the assembly, are fond of saying budgets reflect values. Addressing the city’s top problem isn’t reflected in the budget that’s been approved.
Congratulations if you made it this far and Happy Holidays, everyone!
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected].