Transitions, before political realities take hold, are always time for optimism. It’s before lawmakers and the governor head to Juneau. Before budgets and bills are introduced. Before committee hearings begin and the presentations start. Before the oilies and the anti-oilies and everyone in between muscle their way into things. Before all of this—particularly with this new administration that has put an Obama-like value on such things–anything feels possible. Mostly, it feels like everyone can get along and talk to one another. Ask nearly any of the 250 Alaskans who gathered for the Walker-Mallott transition at the UAA campus this weekend, and most would likely tell you a version of how wonderful it was that so many different types of people from all across the state gathered to talk to each other. Or, as co-chair of the transition Rick Halford put it, “It put a little less cynicism and a lot more hope,” into the process.
Indeed, hope did seem to abound during most of the 17 work sessions at the conference, where the 250 Alaskans gathered in groups to talk about some of the state’s more contentious issues and to provide recommendations to the governor on how to begin to solve those issues. There was unanimity, I’m told, in the healthcare committee, where they decided that the state’s Department of Health and Social Services needs new leadership and Medicaid needs to be expanded. In the fiscal policy committee, they agreed that the budget needed to be cut and that projects, including the Susitina damn, the Knik Arm Bridge, Juneau and Ambler Roads, and the buillet line needed to go. They also talked about doing away with the Alaska Aerospace Corp. And they came up with some nice, lofty goals in the economic development committee.
That’s not to say all went smoothly. The oil and gas committee, where I spent most of my time on Saturday and Sunday, got contentious at moments, as it should have when dealing with an industry that pays for about 90 percent of the state’s general fund, say nothing of the fact that people from big oil and small oil and from government were involved. Throw in a handful of lawyers and you’ve got the makings for a powder keg.
But although there was tension–at one point, it was even suggested that an outside lawyer might have to be brought in because of possible accusations of monopolistic activity– I don’t think I’m overstating things when I say that oil and gas are issues that are going to make or break the Walker administration, and all of the 15 committee members seemed to understand that. A lawyer wasn’t brought in. They worked it out, as they did almost everything else. Some might trust Walker more than others, but everyone there has an interest in Walker’s success. As one member, JR Wilcox from Cook Inlet Energy put it, “If we can get oil and gas right, everything else kind of takes care of itself.”
Here were the members of the committee:
- Bryan Clemenz, Ch2M Hill.
- Lisa Parker, Apache Corp.
- Dave Van Tuyl, BP
- Lisa Wiessler, environmental lawyer.
- Edward Itta, former mayor of the North Slope Borough, currently village corporation consultant.
- Steve Wendt, Agrium.
- Blain Gillman, Kenai lawyer.
- JR Wilcox, Cook Inlet Energy.
- Renee Broker, Fairbanks North Star Borough.
- Kevin Banks, former director for DNR’s oil and gas division.
- Kara Moriarty, Alaska Oil and Gas Association.
- Marty Rutherford, former DNR deputy commissioner, currently with Linc Energy.
- Kevin Darling, Petroleum Equipment Services.
- Joe Paskvan, lawyer and former state senator.
Robin Brena was the chair. He’s a well-known lawyer who works for local governments and relatively small energy companies, including some at the table, against the big ones. He’s often successful. He took his duties seriously. He even brought in two members of his staff to help, one of whom could type 110 words a minute.
They focused on nine areas of priority, with particular emphasis on tax policy, government efficiencies, and lower cost energy.
The more contentious suggestions within these issues involved whether or not to encourage Gov.-elect Bill Walker to stick with the current progress that’s been made on the big LNG line, which many felt was too constricting for Walker, and whether the government should be involved in forcing the majors to open up their facilities to the independents, which most in the group favored. Expect much more of this in upcoming administrative decisions and legislative sessions.
A report is being prepared that will incorporate all the recommendations and a summary of the discussions. The other transition teams will also as be preparing reports.
No one knows how much Walker will or won’t use of this. But that might not actually be the point of this exercise or of the whole weekend. The point might be that all these different people, with many conflicting ideas and agendas, sat down and listened to each other’s concerns and were able to agree on more than they disagreed.
As Brena put it, “Solutions aren’t found in groups where everyone agrees. Solutions are found in talking to people who don’t agree with you.”
Contact Amanda Coyne at email@example.com