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'Backbone' announces official return to Alaska

Amanda Coyne
Merrick Pierce photo

Even though he lacks corporeal form, former Gov. Wally Hickel was certainly present in a small, packed room at the Hotel Captain Cook, the hotel that he built following the devastating 1964 earthquake. His name -- along with other former Alaska Govs. Jay Hammond and Bill Egan -- was invoked continually as one speaker after another stood behind a podium, a picture propped below the microphone of the Alaska Senate bipartisan working group, whom they had gathered to support.

Hickel’s wife Ermalee smiled and clapped as the speakers approached the podium: David Gottstein, Sen. Dennis Egan (son of Bill Egan, the famous former governor), former Teamster head Mike Kenny, former Alaska state Senate presidents Chancy Croft and Rick Halford, AFL-CIO Alaska President Vince Beltrami, lawyer Bill Walker, and long-time Hickel aide Malcolm Roberts -- all, in their own ways, spoke about how important it was to stand up for Alaska and to put Alaska first. To make sure that Alaska had a backbone, as Hickel himself had implored from when he arrived in the state in 1940 until he died in 2010.

The event was to officially announce the reemergence of a group first formed in 1999, “Backbone,” to help support the Alaska Senate’s bipartisan coalition, the last defense against “the oil companies overtaking the Senate,” David Gottstein said. “If they accomplish that, if they can take over the Senate, the game's over. Alaska goes from being an owner state to an owned state."

Gov. Sean Parnell and the oil industry, led by ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil and BP, have been fighting for an up to $2-billion-a-year tax cut, which they say will help boost oil production, the lifeblood of the state.

Noticeably absent was any of the six of Republican members of the coalition, some of whom are fighting tight primary races and are being attacked because they joined the coalition. Republican member Sen. Lesil McGuire distanced herself from the group at a fundraiser at the Petroleum Club earlier this week. “(T)his is my backbone,” she told the pro-industry group.

Also absent was any mention of former Gov. Sarah Palin, whose oil tax hike is the reason for Backbone’s re-emergence.

Backbone again forming around oil

Backbone originally formed in 1999 when then-Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles was negotiating the state's interests in the merger between oil companies Arco and BP. Some, including former Govs. Hickel, Hammond, and Keith Miller, thought Knowles too generous with BP. They thought that the two-term Democratic governor lacked backbone.

Backbone lobbied heavily for federal regulators to intercede in the merger. And they did: The Federal Trade Commission ultimately rejected terms that Knowles had negotiated on behalf of Alaskans. 

Again, the group is forming around oil issues. And this time, it’s standing up to a Republican governor who wants to give a $2-billion-a-year tax cut to industry, believing that if the state does so, industry will invest in enough new production to stem declining oil production from Alaska’s North Slope.

Parnell was appointed by then-Gov. Sarah Palin in 2009 when she stepped down from the seat. Parnell ran and won in 2010, and has since made rolling back the Palin-era tax hike one of the centerpoints of his administration.

in 2011, the Alaska state House approved Parnell’s bill that would have done just that. The Senate majority, or the bipartisan coalition, comprised of 10 Democrats and six Republicans has refused to pass his tax bill.

It did vote in the spring on a bill that would have provided substantial tax breaks -- up to 50 percent -- to oil produced from new fields in Alaska’s Arctic, as well as provide extensive credits for drilling elsewhere around the state. But it would not provide tax breaks to so-called legacy fields -- like Prudhoe Bay and Kuparuk, the biggest in Alaska, already in production.

ConocoPhillips, BP and Exxon Mobil Corp., who run those giant fields would have been left out. Industry trade groups and Parnell, who used to work for Conoco as director of government relations, did not support the bill, which died in the state House.

Gottstein likened Parnell’s stance to a “craps table in Las Vegas.” The governor’s bill, he said, will force Alaskans to “claw our way back to break even,” if it ever will.

It won’t happen, however, he said, if the state acts with strength and with a backbone, notwithstanding the attacks that are bound to come from the oil industry and the “massive effort by oil to sway the upcoming elections,” Gottstein said.

Bill Walker, a lawyer who has long been involved in oil and gas issues, said that if Hickel were alive, “he’d be right in the middle of this.”

“Look how far we’ve come from ‘you drill or we will,’” Walker said, invoking one of many of Hickel’s famous lines.

Why no credit for Palin?

When a reporter asked the group why nobody mentioned Palin, who upon taking office immediately hiked taxes on industry, saying that Alaska was finally getting its “fair share,” Gottstein said that Palin hasn’t been active in Alaska politics.

“We don’t know how to get in touch with her,” Gottstein said.

However, John Reeves, who owns Fairbanks Gold and traveled from that Interior city to support Backbone, said that Palin should have been mentioned. “They should give credit where credit’s due,” he said.

The group doesn’t plan on endorsing any candidates, or forming an official political group. Instead, it’s counting on grassroots support.

Contact Amanda Coyne at amanda@alaskadispatch.com