Local business community hears state chamber priorities
Heidi Zemach | For the LOG
Alaska State Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Rachael Petro addresses the Seward Chamber of Commerce on Friday.
Correction: The comment from Ron Devon, an Anchorage businessman challenging Cathy Giessel for Senate Seat N, should read, “...he said he prefers the bi-partisan caucus’ approach that would give tax breaks to oil companies that guarantee developing new fields, such as the one they have owned in Point Thompson for 37 years.” It is corrected below. —Editor, Aug. 14.
As the political campaign season begins to heat up in advance of the Aug. 28 primary elections, Rachael Petro, executive director of the Alaska State Chamber of Commerce spoke about her influential statewide business organization’s political and legislative priorities at the Seward Chamber of Commerce’s businesses luncheon on Friday. Her speech was well received by a modest, but friendly, audience of Seward business people and state and local politicos. But she finished exactly at 1 p.m ., when the program usually ends, thus there was not time to field questions from the audience.
“The state chamber is very, very focused on marketing Alaska as the best place to do business,” Petro began. It steps in and takes action in places where businesses and smaller chambers of commerce don’t have the means to do so. It provides access, influence and protection for Alaska’s business interests, and can affect the outcome of Alaska legislation and elections. Its views can carry quite a political clout, she said. Some 80 members serve on the state chamber board, representing hundreds of businesses from Barrow to Ketchikan, she said, including Seward businessman Skip Reierson of Petro Marine Services who is active advocating on behalf of Seward and the state chamber board. Deborah Altermatt is the Seward Chamber representative. “When an 80-member board agrees on an issue, the legislature listens,” she said.
The chamber’s major sponsors, many of whom are represented on its board of directors, include BP, Exxon Mobil, ConocoPhillips, Tesoro, The Pebble Partnership, Tower Hill Mines, Boeing, Alaska Railroad Corporation, Alaska Communications, Holland America and Wells Fargo Bank. The group also works in partnership with a variety of large trade associations including the Alaska Mining Association, Oil and Gas Association, the Alaska Trucking Association, and more.
Every fall its members come together to adopt key positions for the upcoming legislative sessions. A smaller legislative affairs committee contributes during the session with other issues that may arise. The chamber also hosts a yearly legislative fly-in, a trade show and conference. “I’d love to tell you what happened,” Petro said, of last year’s annual conference, held in Talkeetna. “But what happens in Talkeetna stays in Talkeetna,” she joked, referring to the private nature of that meeting.
Of the 30 policy position taken in 2011-12, the top was oil tax reform. They backed Gov. Sean Parnell’s proposal to significantly lower the amount of taxes that oil companies must pay to the state of Alaska (about two billion dollars per year for the next decade) in order to give them incentive to produce more oil (one million barrels per day) from their declining legacy fields on the North Slope.
A version of the governor’s reform was passed by the house, but failed in the senate after the bipartisan senate caucus led by Senate President Gary Stevens of Kodiak stepped in and tried to include guarantees from the companies that those tax breaks would be contingent on increased development. The bill that finally passed by the Senate offered a 30 percent tax discount to companies that bring new fields into production. Incumbent state senator, Cathy Giessel (R-Anchorage), who was at the chamber luncheon while campaigning for the new District N senate seat, was among the three members of the Republican minority caucus of four who voted to oppose it.
The state chamber put in a huge amount of effort on behalf of oil tax reform, Petro said. It included chamber-sponsored rallies in Fairbanks in 2011, and in Kodiak and Anchorage in 2012, gathering letters of support for the reform from 13 local chambers of commerce, including Seward’s, and 700 pro-oil-tax reform comments by Alaska residents and delivering them to lawmakers on the eve of their vote. Cindy Clock, the Seward Chamber of Commerce’s executive director later clarified that the chamber’s letter had been supportive of reviewing oil taxes, but that it had not taken a position, in keeping with its neutral stance on political policy issues.
Sen. Giessel, who was in the Seward audience at the Breeze Inn while campaigning in town for Senate District N (against Joe Arness), however, paid close attention. She, and incumbent Rep. Mike Chenault, (R-Nikiski) both supported the Alaska governor’s oil tax reform, and received an A-plus this year from the state chamber’s 2012 Alaska Business Report Card. They are therefore among those most likely to receive campaign financing by its funding PAC, the Alaska Business Political Action Committee (ABPAC). By contrast, the Seward area’s outgoing senate and house representatives prior to redistricting, did not fare well at all. Sen. Gary Stevens (R-Kodiak) who led a bi-partisan coalition in the senate that opposed the state tax relief for oil companies, received a failing grade on the report card, and Rep. Paul Seaton (R-Homer) received a D.
Ron Devon, an Anchorage businessman who is challenging Giessel for the new Seat N as a non-affiliated candidate in the Nov. 6 general election, also attended the chamber luncheon while campaigning in the Seward area. He listened with interest, but did not agree with all of the Alaska state chamber’s position, particularly its backing of the governor’s oil tax reform. Rather, he said he prefers the bi-partisan caucus’ approach that would give tax breaks to oil companies that guarantee developing new fields, such as the one they have owned in Point Thompson for 37 years. Prior to the higher state oil taxes under the Palin-era Alaska’s Clear and Equitable Share, or ACES, the major oil companies did not develop oil and gas fields, he said, so he doubts that decreasing those taxes would cause them to now do so.
Other goals of the Alaska State Chamber include: supporting oil and gas exploration in the Arctic, and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; supporting the overturn of the “Roadless Rule” on National Forest lands in Alaska in order to promote timber development; exempting Alaska from the newly proposed federal EPA Emission Control Areas (ECA) in international waters off North America. The ECA will impose maximum sulfur limits for large marine vessels operating within 200 miles of the coast of the United State and Canada. The state chamber also supports encouraging fiscal restraint on spending, and lowering worker’s compensation in Alaska. Statewide projects they promote included the planned expansions of the Port of Anchorage Harbor and the Port Mackenzie Railroad. Petro did not mention the SMIC basin improvements/Coastal Villages (CDQ fund) relocation to Seward, or the Alaska Railroad line expansion in Seward to allow greater amounts of coal to be shipped. The Seward Chamber of Commerce CVB submitted those two plans for the state chamber board consideration at its fall conference.
The state chamber also is opposing Ballot Measure 2 in the Aug. 28 primary election, the citizens-led Coastal Management Plan initiative that gives coastal municipalities and residents a greater say in federal offshore permitting decisions. “It simply is not businesses-friendly, and it is far, far different from the former coastal management program,” Petro said. The state chamber supported the house version of the plan’s extension, which passed 40-0, but said the the senate’s version “had too many deal killers.” The ballot measures is 15 pages and 750 words and too complex for people to understand all of its implications, said Petro.
“I can tell you now that your ambitions in Seward, and at (SMIC harbor development) will be affected by this,” she added.
The state chamber’s position against the citizen’s initiative, and its dire predictions about SMIC basin development prompted the Seward City Council to hold a work session on the subject recently, and to decide not to take a position on the ballot measure.