By Jenny Neyman
Sen. Peter Micciche made use of a midterm break in the Alaska Legislature to tour his Kenai Peninsula District O, meeting with constituents in town hall meetings in Homer on Friday and Soldotna on Saturday.
“My goal was to get back here and have you be proud of the job I did whether you have a ‘D’ or ‘R’ next to your name,” he told the 50 or so attendants of the Soldotna meeting in the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly Chambers.
Micciche gave a legislative update and answered wide-ranging questions from the crowd in the two-hour meeting, chewing over substantive issues along with the pizza and other snacks provided for the crowd.
Micciche said his top three priorities have been to rein in state spending to a reasonable level, reduce the decline of North Slope production and address energy needs for all Alaskans.
“I think everyone is probably aware that our spending is unsustainable to any level of future revenue. What we’re trying to do is match probable revenue streams in the future and bring our spending to a responsible level that leaves some for savings for our kids and grandkids,” he said.
But that is no easy task.
“The problem is, hopefully we can get Alaskans behind us that we are in a declining revenue picture, and until we can turn it around we’re going to have to streamline things,” he said. … “No one wants their budget cut — no one, ever. And it’s tough, they are tough decisions. But I think it should be done with a scalpel and not a hatchet.”
His favored approach would be to support local priorities for funding and then engage state departments about where to reduce spending, “to ensure that cuts are done in a way that steps down responsibly.”
Discussion about reducing the decline of North Slope production largely morphed into talk of Senate Bill 21, proposing to adjust the state’s oil and gas production tax structure.
Micciche supported an amendment that raised the proposed base tax from 25 percent to 35 percent per barrel of oil produced and also supports eliminating tax-credit incentives to companies that don’t end up producing oil. That’s a flaw in the current Alaska’s Clear and Equitable Share oil tax structure, he said.
“ACES is designed to entice new entrants to come into the market that don’t have any money and don’t necessarily have a burden for production. So it exposes the state to having to write large checks (without oil being produced),” Micciche said.
Micciche supports an oil tax structure that is consistent, rather than progressive, with 66 percent going to the state and companies keeping the remaining third, he said.
“It allows producers to take home a third of their earnings. That’s competitive,” he said.
“No one can explain why progressivity is good and no progressivity is bad. It should be fair. As the price increases the state should get the same proportion, but we’ll earn more money, just like any other business. … It makes planning easier, it makes understanding markets easier and it makes planning for funding this state easier,” said Micciche, who is manager of ConocoPhillips’ LNG plant in Nikiski. “I don’t think that we should like small companies and dislike big companies. I think we need to pull the emotions away from corporations and treat businesses fairly.”
He said that he supports SB 21 as it currently stands, but “if it ends up going to a very low tax rate I will likely not support it.”
On energy for Alaskans, Micciche said he’d like to see a comprehensive energy plan for the state that “divides this state up in regions with likely sources of energy, determining what sources of renewables are possible in the future and supplementing the hydrocarbons today. I’d really like to see that plan,” he said.
By the bills
Several bills in particular drew discussion:
- Senate Joint Resolution 9 would put a constitutional amendment on the ballot for the next state election asking voters to remove language dictating that public funds shall not be paid to religious or other private education systems. It’s been couched as a measure to allow state funding of vouchers for students to attend private schools.
Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent Steve Atwater cautioned that Micciche and other legislators need to vet and debate the issue before allowing it on the statewide ballot.
“I encourage you not to just let it pass on to the people. It’s way more complicated than that and I think it would be a mistake to do that, so I encourage you to have a heated debate about what that really means,” Atwater said.
Micciche said he does not currently support the measure. It hasn’t been well-enough fleshed out, he said. For instance, as Mary Toutonghi, of Soldotna, wanted to know, would private schools receiving state funding be held accountable to the same standards as public schools?
“I have recommended that the senator that introduced the bill spend the interim thinking about how you’re going to explain this to Alaskans. I think it would go down burning in flames right now. There’s not enough information so I can’t responsibly support it until I learn more about it,” Micciche said. “… That doesn’t mean that every student learns within the public school model and I believe in the best education wherever students get it, but I’m not going to pass something off (to voters) that I don’t understand.”
- Senate Bill 49 calls for the state to define what constitutes a medically necessary abortion, as Medicaid is expected to pay for such procedures.
“It’s about defining how Alaska does their Medicare, Medicaid programs. They don’t pay for elective procedures. I think it’s fair,” Micciche said.
He fielded one comment from the audience on the subject.
“Maybe for every bill introduced to address abortion we could see another bill that supports mothers, families, children and foster care,” said Kate Veh, of Soldotna.
HB 69, Rep. Mike Chenault’s, R-Nikiski, measure that the state refuse to enforce any new federal bans or restrictions on ownership of assault rifles or magazines, further dictating that federal officers attempting to enforce such federal measures in Alaska shall be prosecuted. The measure passed the House and will be taken up by the Senate. Micciche said he supports it. Questions from the audience were referred to Chenault, who was in attendance.
“If you look at the past number of mass shootings across the state, while they’re all tragedies, the research I’ve done shows that every one of them was registered to a rightful owner that went through the process and got that gun. We may need to do things on mental illness, and I certainly agree with that, but that doesn’t mean that we need to cause fears amongst our people and take my rights as far as the Second Amendment away. That’s the intent behind it,” Chenault said.
“People will scream that it’s unconstitutional,” he said. “… If there’s five lawyers in this room I’ll get five different opinions on is that bill unconstitutional or not. I talked to the (public safety) commissioner about it and he wasn’t real thrilled about having to (arrest federal officers), but we’ll see at that point. If the bill actually passes and becomes law, then we will see.”
Joann Odd, of Ninilchik, asked if Micciche would be in favor of the state offering an incentive to gun and ammunition manufactures to move to Alaska.
“I think that’s an interesting question. I don’t know enough about it to give an informed answer,” Micciche said.
Chenault was more definitive: “I actually have a resolution being drafted to invite gun manufacturers and ammunition manufacturers to the state of Alaska,” he said.
- HB 77 is a wide-ranging attempt to streamline the permitting process in Alaska. Sections garnering outcry are provisions limiting administrative appeals to those “substantially and adversely affected” by a decision and who “meaningfully participated” in the public comment process, and to restrict the ability to apply for water reservations that maintain or protect certain water levels for the purposes of fish habitat protection, recreation and water quality.
It’s a complicated bill and Micciche said he has struggled with it.
On one hand, “Is there anyone in this room (to whom) salmon is not important?” Micciche said, with the expected zero hands raised.
On the other is logistics. For instance, as Ricky Gease, with the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, pointed out, there aren’t current standards establishing requiring water levels for streams in the state, nor funding currently available to do so.
“The parts of it I do support is that once the appeals process is through, folks ought to be able to build their project,” Micciche said.
Clark Whitney Jr., of Soldotna, voiced concern that streamlining the permitting process will endanger salmon streams, even if some form of public input still is taken.
“I’m concerned that maybe being able to say something doesn’t really make a difference, that the decision isn’t based on what people say, it’s based on who has the power to control the permitting process. And my concern is that people who have that power maybe aren’t as concerned with protecting the resource as they are with making sure that a large-scale mining project gets approval,” Whitney said. “Is there anything you can do to maybe restore some sanity to that process?”
Micciche said he hopes for a middle ground that allows a reasonable permitting process with meaningful public input that protects the environment, yet that allows development to not be delayed by an onerous permitting and appeals process.
“What I can do is my part as a representative from an area that has a lot of salmon streams and a lot of friends that are in the salmon-stream business,” Micciche said. “And that is what I have been doing and what I will continue to do. But I can tell you right now that the numbers for those that want to see permitting continue to be very strict and continue to take a long time, the numbers are not there for you right now. The votes in Juneau are leaning more toward permitting.”
- HB 80, rolling back voter initiative-created restrictions on cruise ship wastewater discharge, was the other hot topic at the meeting. Micciche voted in favor of the measure, saying he saw the writing on the wall that it was going to pass with or without his support.
He supported two amendments, one recommending extending into the future the date set in the 2006 voter initiative whereby cruise ships must meet stricter water-quality standards for ship discharges — standards which currently are not possible to meet, Micciche said. He also supported an amendment that would remove all game refuges, wildlife sanctuaries, critical habitat areas and wildlife ranges from areas where discharge can occur. Both failed.
Micciche said that the issue, for him, isn’t just about cruise ships, but that the Legislature should look at effluent discharges and state water quality on a larger scale. A more meaningful improvement to state water quality would come from addressing municipal discharge standards, rather than just looking at cruise ships, Micciche said.
As it is cruise ships already put their effluence through primary, secondary and tertiary treatment, similar to how the city of Soldotna treats its wastewater before discharging it into the Kenai River, he said.
“Cruise ships are like Soldotna. We have tertiary discharge with UV and we discharge into the Kenai River where you dipnet your salmon and catch your kings, catch your sockeye, take it home and eat it because it’s very excellent-quality effluent,” he said, acknowledging, though, that there can still be copper and other metals in the discharge.
But cities like Anchorage and Homer adhere to less-rigorous standards.
“All along the coast very often are primary discharge, which means — without being rude — they take out the floaters and the rest goes into the inlet. When you think about it that way, the city of Anchorage is dumping hundreds and hundreds of cruise ships worth of effluent every day in Cook Inlet, and it happens in every community up and down the coast that doesn’t have tertiary treatment,” he said. “We should demand that they (cruise ships) perform at the highest level possible, but if you have any thought whatsoever about local water quality issues we need to stop dumping raw sewage from our cities into the waters of Alaska.”
He recommends working toward higher standards for municipal wastewater discharge, first identifying some of the more easily upgraded municipal water treatment facilities, seeking federal funding to do so and advancing from there.
“When something like this happens it brings up other issues and you look into them and think, ‘How can you make the most impact?’” he said.
Micciche fielded a variety of other questions and requests from the crowd, including to pass a law requiring motor vehicles to have headlights on at all times on state highways — and a subsequent request to oppose that measure, to support the dipnet fishery in Kenai, to support funding for mental health services in the state, and to reduce the number and payroll of state employees, among others.
Keep the comments, questions and correspondences coming, Micciche said.
“If you don’t think your emails matter I can tell you right now I’ll be thinking a certain way on a bill and the emails will start coming in from home, or the calls, and I’ll think, ‘Maybe I’ll look at this one a little closer or look at it from this angle.’ It makes a big difference, so keep them up,” he said.
“We’re not going to agree on everything. So stay in contact, let me know how you feel about things all the time, and we will be there for you. And in four years if you don’t like what I’m doing you get to be the performance evaluator and decide whether or not I do it again.”
Peninsula legislator open houses:
Rep. Paul Seaton, House Speaker Mike Chenault, and Rep. Kurt Olson will meet with constituents from10 a.m. to 1 p.m. March 23 in the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly Chambers in Soldotna.
- Rep. Paul Seaton will meet with constituents from 4 to 5 p.m. March 23 at the Ninilchik Senior Center.
- Rep. Paul Seaton will meet with constituents from 2 to 4 p.m. March 24 at Homer City Council Chambers.
- Sen. Cathy Giessel has canceled town hall meetings she had planned for March 16 in Seward, Cooper Landing and Sterling. Instead she will participate in a teleconference town hall meeting with peninsula legislators at 6 p.m. March 14. Contact a legislative information office to participate.