An engaged Alaskan democracy

Forum held in Anchorage to discuss Alaska’s Fiscal Future

By KTVA CBS 11 News 11:56 AM October 5, 2014
ANCHORAGE – Experts from across the state are trying to determine if the decline in oil production puts Alaska’s fiscal future in jeopardy.The Alaska Common Ground hosted a forum Saturday at the Loussac Library to discuss a range of fiscal topics, including the long-term oil decline, education funding, capital projects and the role of the Permanent Fund.

Organizers say they hope Saturday’s forum will get Alaskans thinking about their state’s future and whether a sales or income tax is inevitable down the line.

“We’re looking, though, to the future here,” said John Havelock, former Alaska attorney general. “And there is a certain pessimism because oil revenues are going down. But as I was pointing out, the revenues are not going to disappear, not in any foreseeable future, and the rate of decline gets slower and slower every year.”

Read more here and see the video.

‘Pry (the dividend) out of my cold, dead hand: Debating the future of the PFD

Posted by KTUU, October 4th

Days after hundreds of thousands of Alaskans enjoyed a cash windfall to the tune of $1,884, the future of the Permanent Fund dividend is being debated.

On Saturday afternoon, a panel of experts gathered at the Wilda Marston Theater in Anchorage to discuss the future of the more than $51 billion rainy day fund and its role in government spending.

“If you want to get my Permanent Fund dividend then you’re going to have to pry it out of my cold dead hand,” said John Havelock, University of Alaska Anchorage professor.

UAA Professor Scott Goldsmith says the constitutionally protected Permanent Fund is secure and growing annually, but the dividend, which is based on the earnings from the fund, could be used to one day pay for government services.

Goldsmith says the situation is caused by declining petroleum revenue and production, which means the state will look to other sources of cash to pay for education, troopers and other services.

Despite the decline in production, some experts say Alaska remains in good financial shape.

“Oil production has been declining for the past 25 years,” said Goldsmith.  “The Permanent Fund has grown and the size of the dividend has grown and that’s because the Permanent Fund dividend depends on the size and earnings of the Permanent Fund, not only current petroleum revenues.”

Havelock says Alaska still has about $9 billion in fiscal reserve funds, but says if a solution isn’t found within the next five years the state’s future could be in question. Hopefully, he says, there will be no need to tap the Fund earnings which would reduce dividend checks.

“The Permanent Fund represents the fact that the resource belongs to the people,” said Havelock.  “If they need to get revenue then they should tax it to get that revenue back, but they should just be taking away the dividend which is like taking away a person’s personal property.”

Read more here.

Everything you wanted to know about legalizing marijuana (but weren’t sure you could ask)

Suzanna Caldwell, Alaska Dispatch News September 13, 2014

In November, Alaskans will decide whether the state will become the third in the nation to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. It’s controversial in that the drug is still illegal at the federal level, but also because it will essentially create a new industry — or at least a newly legitimate industry — in the state.

Consideration of legalization puts Alaska at the forefront of the movement to allow recreational marijuana sales, following Washington and Colorado. Oregon voters also will consider a similar measure and are set to vote on the same day Alaskans will.

Alaska is known for its live-and-let-live mentality and libertarian attitudes. So far, Alaska is the only state to endorse the private use of marijuana in the home, adding shades of gray to a legal area that is already far from black and white. Put those together, and it makes sense that Alaska would be one of the first states to look at whether or not the drug should be legalized.

However, the road to legalization is a complicated one. Those in favor of the initiative are quick to say that marijuana prohibition has failed and that it’s time for the state to take back the black market and stop unnecessarily criminalizing people. Those against it say Alaska’s drug policy is working and that legalization will only proliferate the drug, cause increased use — especially among youth — and be a burden on public health.

Questions go beyond whether you’re a heavy toker or staunch abstainer. Besides figuring out how to deal with public safety and health are the larger questions about how to create an entire industry from scratch. Much can be learned from what’s happening in Washington and Colorado, but there are unique issues only Alaska will face.

Below is a primer on what we know and don’t know about the proposed law, drawing on legal history, precedents being set in other states and our own reporting, including a handy timeline that outlines major events in Alaska marijuana history. Expect this to be updated as we continue our reporting on what this measure could mean for Alaskans.

Read the rest here

Ballot measure to increase minimum wage gets an audience, despite lack of opposition

Suzanna Caldwell, Alaska Dispatch News, July 31, 2014

In the almost 20 years Alaska Common Ground chair Cliff Groh has been involved in the organization, he has spent a lot of time organizing, participating and moderating debates.

So when it came time to find an Alaskan willing to argue against Ballot Measure 3, an initiative that could increase Alaska’s minimum wage, he was surprised to find it was a challenge to come up with participants.

“It’s usually not this hard,” Groh said.

Part of that is timing — it’s still early for the initiative, which will be voted on in November — but the topic is also far from controversial. So far, no formal group has organized to oppose the measure. A poll conducted by the Alaska House Majority Caucus in March found that 69 percent of respondents supported a minimum wage increase. Even the Republican-led House of Representatives passed a substantially similar measure during this year’s session, though the bill never made it through the Senate.

After scouring the business community, Groh said the organization couldn’t come up with anyone who would agree to participate in a debate. Luckily Groh found himself at a “party” of economists — the International Association of Energy Economists — earlier this year and was able, through a little networking, to find Kyle Hampton, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Alaska Anchorage and director of the UAA Center for Economic Education.

Hampton took on Ed Flanagan, former Department of Labor commissioner and current co-sponsor of the measure that would increase Alaska’s minimum wage. The initiative would increase the minimum wage from $7.75 per hour to $8.75 an hour in 2015, then increase it another dollar in 2016, after which it would be adjusted annually for inflation. If the federal minimum wage increases to an amount over those figures (which is likely, given the current push by the White House to raise it to $10.10) the minimum wage would be one dollar over the federal minimum.

Hampton argued in front of a crowd of about 75 people at Anchorage’s Z.J. Loussac Public Library Wilda Marston Theater that the minimum wage is mostly an arbitrary figure that doesn’t necessarily lift people out of poverty. He suggests that the wage increases offer a short-term solution to a long-term problem of poverty.

Read full article here.

Overflow Anchorage crowd hears robust debate over oil taxes

Alex DeMarban, Alaska Dispatch, July 24, 2014

Before a packed audience in Anchorage on Wednesday night, two sides sparring over the oil-production tax cut agreed on some issues, including that investment and jobs increased under the former tax system. But the teams disagreed strongly on whether the tax cut will pay for itself.

In one corner were Sen. Bill Wielechowksi and economist Gregg Erickson, arguing in favor of repealing the cut. In opposition were Brad Keithley and petroleum economist Roger Marks.

With less than four weeks until voters choose between the two tax systems, more than 250 spectators crowded into the Wilda Marston Theatre at Loussac Library. Dozens more were turned away because of space constraints in the theater, where it was standing room only.

Organized primarily by Alaska Common Ground, the debate was the first in a weekly series of forums focusing on the four ballot measures Alaska voters will consider this year.

This debate was different from previous tax cut debates, with panelists asking the questions instead of a moderator, leading to more back-and-forth and sometimes pointed exchanges. Meantime, the audience — generally older and cheering loudest for repeal arguments — submitted more than 50 questions, only a few of which could be addressed before time ran out.

Erickson, often jabbing at his opponents for private work they’d done for the oil industry, said the “spin doctors” at the Parnell administration — or maybe it was the oil companies — made a brilliant move when they dubbed the tax cut the More Alaska Production Act after its passage in 2013.

Erickson said tax breaks increase the chance of investment in the oil patch, which increases the chance more oil will be produced. But the real issue is not more production, he said. It’s whether the tax cuts will pay off for Alaska.

Paperwork he distributed at the meeting claimed the tax cut would be a huge loss for the state, costing $20 for every $1 in return. Later, relying on state figures, he said that if the More Alaska Production Act had been in place since 2007, instead of the former system known as Alaska’s Clear and Equitable Share, the state would have taken in $8.5 billion less in revenue.

Wielechowski said under the tax cut that became effective this year, production that is considered “new oil” — which gets bigger tax breaks than the “old oil” produced in the large legacy fields — will be a net loss for the state, with production-tax revenue smaller than the credits paid out. The state’s own figures show a 45 percent drop in oil production in 10 years, to about 285,000 barrels per day from about 500,000 today. In a matter of years under the More Alaska Production Act, the state will be broke, he said.

But Keithley and Marks said state figures aren’t taking into account production that will come on line now that the progressivity feature that hiked taxes on oil producers as crude prices rose — and led to sharply falling production — is gone. They argued that only a small increase in production is needed for the More Alaska Production Act to pay for itself.

Marks, a former state employee who helped write past oil tax laws, said that under certain conditions, only 30,000 to 40,000 barrels per day of new production would be needed for the tax cut to pay off.  That’s a fraction of the 4 billion barrels of proven oil reserves on the North Slope.

Keithley said the former tax regime led to more jobs and investment, but not results. The state spent hundreds of millions dollars a year subsidizing small companies’ unsuccessful exploration efforts. Meanwhile, taxes rose on BP, ConocoPhillips and Exxon Mobil Corp., the companies most likely to increase production.

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Oil Tax Debate Draws SRO Crowd

By | July 24, 2014 – 9:33 am

It was standing-room only at an Anchorage debate on whether to keep the new capped oil tax rate or to switch back to a system where the rate goes up along with the profits.

The Alaska Common Ground forum Wednesday was close to violating fire code, and that was after turning 75 people away.

The two-hour debate had State Senator Bill Wielechowski (D-Anchorage) and economist Gregg Erickson making the case for repealing the law on one side.

Wielechowski and Erickson argued that tax rates historically have had little effect on oil production, and that Alaska was a profitable place to operate even when the state had a windfall profits tax.

Erickson also accused the oil companies of using scare tactics by suggesting that the development of a natural gas megaproject depended on the failure of the repeal, and he recalled similar rhetoric used in 2006 when voters considered a gas tax initiative.

“The oil companies, particularly Conoco Phillips, paid millions of dollars for ads that said, ‘You pass this initiativefolks, and there’ll never be a gasline,’” Erickson said. “Well, voters of Alaska took that to heart and declined to pass that initiative. Folks, we still don’t have a gasline, and they’ve been telling that same thing every time we proposed a change in the oil tax regime.”

The opposing side was represented by oil and gas consultants Roger Marks and Brad Keithley, who countered that tax incentives can encourage production and in turn bring in more state revenue.

The pair was also asked to explain why the oil companies were spending more
than $10 million to defeat the referendum. The audience skewed in favor of
repeal, and Keithley’s response was met with some skepticism from the crowd.

“I don’t think the oil companies are scared,” Keithley said.

Read the full story

Anchorage SB21 Debate Draws Standing-Room-Only Crowd

Caslon Hatch, Weekend Anchor KTUU Jul 23, 2014

ANCHORAGE – One of this election year’s most complicated and pivotal issues readily filled the room at the Loussac Library’s Wilda Marston Theatre in Anchorage Wednesday night, for a debate on the future of oil tax law Senate Bill 21.

In one corner, state Sen. Bill Wielechowski (D-Anchorage) and economist Gregg Erickson argued in favor of Ballot Measure 1, which if passed would repeal Gov. Sean Parnell’s slate of reduced oil taxes under SB21. The 2013 bill superseded former Gov. Sarah Palin’s plan, Alaska’s Clear and Equitable Share, an oil production tax passed by the state Legislature in 2007. “Under SB21 the oil companies get the biggest share, a much larger share of that increment,” Erickson said at the debate.

In the other corner, oil and gas consultant Brad Keithley and petroleum economist Roger Marks argued for keeping the new oil tax system in place with a no vote on Ballot Measure 1. “SB21 was propagated by one single big problem with ACES, and the problem was the structure accredited very high tax rates and high prices,” Marks said.

See the full story.

ACG Chair Cliff Groh on Hometown Alaska

Getting an audience for the issues

By | June 20, 2014 – 1:00 pm
Both Alaska Common Ground and the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce have public forums planned to discuss both sides of important issues coming before Alaska voters this election season.We bet both Cliff Groh (Alaska Common Ground) and Andrew Halcro (Anchorage Chamber of Commerce) would like an audience like the one above to hear out the discussions. We found it at Wikimedia Commons, and think it expresses a wish that we all get involved in understanding these complex issues so we can vote informed.Hometown Alaska has invited both of these community catalysts onto the show to discuss their organization’s upcoming forums, why they chose this format, do they find themselves preaching to the choir or do they manage to bring in new faces and fresh ideas through the format of public forums.Guests:

  • Andrew Halcro, president, Anchorage Chamber
  • Cliff Groh, chair, Alaska Common Ground

Link to podcast

Proposition 1 on Talk of Alaska

On KSKA’s Talk of Alaska on Tuesday, June 10th, Steve Heimel hosted a discussion on Proposition 1, the repeal of SB21.


  • Senator Bert Stedman, Republican from Sitka
  • Doug Smith, CEO, Little Red Services oilfield services company & member of No One On One coalition
  • Tara Sweeney, Senior Vice President for External Affairs, Arctic Slope Regional Corporation & member of No One On One coalition

Link to the podcast.

Timeline: Notable moments in 40 years of Alaska’s history with marijuana

Megan Edge, Laurel Andrews- Alaska Dispatch April 13, 2014

Article link here

When men and women took their clipboards, pens and paper to the streets in 2013 to begin collecting signatures for yet another Alaska voter initiative to legalize marijuana in the Last Frontier, some were left scratching their heads. How legal is marijuana in Alaska already? they wondered. Well, it’s complicated. Over time, a great deal of gray area has developed when it comes to the enforcement of Alaska laws against the green.

The uncertainty has even predated Alaska’s statehood. Even the man mostly responsible for the nation’s first laws against marijuana was uncertain about where Alaska’s laws stood.

During testimony before members of Congress in 1937 on behalf of prohibiting marijuana, a substance “about as harmless as a rattlesnake,” Commissioner of Narcotics Henry Anslinger was asked if any of the territories had laws against its use.

“Hawaii has a law. I cannot tell you about Alaska. Puerto Rico does have a law. The only place I am not sure about is Alaska,” he said. By the 1960s the nation was deep into drug culture; the youth used it as a symbol of social rebellion, and in the midst of a morally diverse war, a sign of protest. Though Alaska was new to the nation, it was no exception to the phenomenon.

By 1970, the administration of President Richard Nixon began fighting back and Congress passed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act. In June of the following year, Nixon declared the war on drugs, saying it was “public enemy No. 1 in the United States.” It wouldn’t take long for Alaska to start fighting back, with one man leading on the front lines. His case would turn into the biggest marijuana and personal privacy case Alaska had ever seen, setting precedent for decades to come.

Since Colorado and Washington have made headlines recently by legalizing recreational cannabis sales, marijuana has become a hot topic in 2014. But the drug’s use and place in society has been hotly debated in courts and among lawmakers for decades, leaving citizens as spectators watching an everlasting ping-pong match.

Regardless of Alaska’s history with marijuana, and regardless of what happens in the August election, pot remains illegal under federal law, listed among Schedule I drugs, a group of controlled substances defined as the most dangerous, without any accepted medical utility and with high potential for abuse.

1972 – The fall of 1972 was the start of a long fight for and against marijuana legalization in Alaska thanks to one man, who could be called the grandfather of the Alaska marijuana legalization movement. Irwin Ravin was pulled over for a broken tail light in Anchorage, and was discovered to be in possession of marijuana. A local police officer wrote him a ticket, but Ravin refused to sign it and held the contraband in his hand until he was arrested. Ravin v. State would end up setting legal precedence for decades to come.

1975 – The Alaska Legislature voted for the decriminalization of the long-debated drug. If a person was in possession of one ounce or less in public, or in possession of any amount in the privacy of one’s own home, he or she could not be fined more than $100.

1975 – Just over a week after lawmakers decriminalized the personal use of marijuana, the state of Alaska reached a decision in Ravin’s case, setting a precedent that would complicate laws against marijuana from then on. The Alaska Supreme Court deemed possession of pot in the privacy of one’s home constitutionally protected, despite the fact that Ravin was actually found in possession in his car, not his home.

1982 – The Alaska Legislature decided to let users keep a little more cash in their pockets, and got rid of the $100 fine.

1989 – A campaign to fight the use of marijuana began by circling a statewide petition.

1989 – Alaska State Troopers made a sizeable marijuana bust in Wasilla in December, where Thomas Wyatt, then 45, was found growing 2,006 plants in a residence troopers said was apparently constructed for the purposes of growing cannabis. The month before, troopers had seized 3,000 plants in four different growing operations in the Matanuska Valley.

1990 – In November of 1990 the voter initiative passed, making it illegal to even have or smoke pot in one’s own home. If caught with less than eight ounces, a person could spend 90 days in a jail cell and get slapped with $1,000 fine.

1995 – Three Point MacKenzie men were arrested and charged with poaching up to a dozen moose over the course of six months. One of the men was also charged with setting up illegal bear-baiting stations in the woods across the Knik Arm from Anchorage. Troopers said they believed the men intended to trade the bear parts to an undercover investigator in exchange for marijuana.

1996 – Troopers seized 1,465 plants, worth more than $700,000, in a shed next to couple Doug and Heather Gregg’s home. Trooper Al Storey said the bust was the largest in recent history.

1998 – The use of marijuana for medical purposes became legal, with 69 percent of voters signing off on a citizens’ initiative. Those smoking for their own health and registered in a state database could possess an ounce or up to six plants, of which only three can be budding. Critics say a problem has been that there is no legal way for Alaskans with legal permission to obtain the drug.

1998 – In October, Anchorage police confiscated 1,097 plants during a bust on Birchwood Loop Road, the largest pot bust in Anchorage at that time.

1998 – Also that month, troopers found what they said was the most impressive growing and packaging operation they had ever seen hidden in four secret rooms beneath the garage of an Anchorage Hillside home. Troopers seized 181 plants and indicted seven people.

2000 – Weed was once again on the mind of Alaska residents. An initiative sought to return the laws to pre-1990 status. Measure 5 would have regulated the drug like alcohol, allowed residents over 18 to farm and possess their own supply, and would have granted amnesty to those serving time for marijuana offenses, and purged the criminal records for many others, and would have created an advisory group to study possible restitution. It failed to gain enough support, losing 59.1 percent to 40.9 percent.

2002 – At the Olympic Torch Relay in Juneau, a senior at Juneau-Douglas High School held a sign that said “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.” Joseph Frederick’s obvious disobedience became the focus of a national debate over the First Amendment.

2004 – Marijuana legalization failed once again in 2004. The campaign pushing Ballot Measure 2 spent more than $850,000 in polling, canvassing, staffing, mailers and print and broadcast advertisements before it failed. A study commissioned by the Alaskans for Rights & Revenues, the group backing the initiative, found that marijuana prohibition costs ranged from $25 million to $30 million annually.

2005 – The killing of Thomas Cody was found to be a drug slaying connected to a multi-million dollar marijuana smuggling operation of “B.C. Bud” from Canada. Nopenone Dennis Shine plead guilty in 2007 to the shooting of Cody, in what was a hostile takeover of the operation. The group was smuggling 900 pounds of product into the state every six weeks, U.S. Attorney Frank Russo said. The bust dismantled one of the largest marijuana smuggling operations in state history.

2006 – Former Alaska Governor Frank Murkowski went head-to-head against the Ravin decision. Murkowski made the possession of one to four ounces of pot a misdemeanor and punishable by up to one year in jail. He argued that the marijuana available by the mid-2000’s was much stronger than what Ravin was smoking in the 1970s. The American Civil Liberties Union challenged the new law.

2006 – One of the largest drug busts in Western Alaska occurred when troopers seized 42 pounds of marijuana in Bethel. Francis Cryan, then 57, was found to have marijuana hidden in his checked luggage, as well as in a locked gun safe he had shipped to himself through a cargo carrier. Troopers estimated that the street value in Bethel, nearly four times the price in Anchorage at $1,400 an ounce, was worth around $940,000.

2007 – The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Fairbanks man John Collette, whose marijuana grow operation was disbanded in the early 1990s, did not get proper notice for the goods seized in the bust, including two airplanes, snowmachines and more than $40,000 from bank accounts. Collette’s operation was seized in 1993 when authorities raided the home. He fled the country but later returned and pleaded guilty to multiple marijuana manufacturing and distributing charges, serving eight years of an 11-year sentence. After that, he said he spent much of his time working on lawsuits against the government.

2008 – Alaska’s Supreme Court began hearing testimony for the State v. ACLU, but — plot twist — no decision was made. Privacy rights were to be reexamined when a defendant would actually be prosecuted for a marijuana offense.

2010 – The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race began testing competing mushers for drug use. Mushers are tested for a variety of different drugs, marijuana among them. The drug tests occur at White Mountain, the second-to-last checkpoint during the 1,000 mile long race.

2010 – Then-three-time race winner Lance Mackey said in 2010 that he believed the Iditarod decision was aimed at him. Mackey, a throat cancer survivor, had been open about using medical marijuana on the trail. Officials said the idea had been discussed over the years, but executive director of the Iditarod Trail Committee Stan Hooley told the Anchorage Daily News that it would be difficult to deny the allegations and that other mushers had complained about it. “The reality of it is he’s won the race three times and people would like to figure out a way to beat him,” Hooley said.

2010 – On April 11, Ravin died at age 70 from complications caused by a massive heart attack.

2010 – The ACLU estimates that in 2010 Alaska spent more than $11 million enforcing marijuana laws, and that every 4.32 hours someone in Alaska is arrested for having marijuana. The study used data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program and the U.S. Census to document arrest rates, as well as the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Criminal Justice Expenditure and Employment Extracts data from fiscal year 2009. Also included in the analysis were federal and state-level estimates for government expenditures and employment for law enforcement, the courts and department of corrections.

2010 – In July, Alaska State Trooper Kyle S. Young busted a married couple for growing after attesting that he could smell marijuana from the road, hundreds of yards away. Young claimed that he smelled marijuana while off duty and driving in the Meadow Lakes area of Southcentral Alaska. He followed his nose to the house of Trace and Jennifer Thoms and concluded that there were no other nearby structures that could have been the source of the odor. Young later executed a search warrant to search the house’s specific address and immediate vicinity, and during that time searched two buildings that were more than a football field’s distance from the house, where 400 marijuana plants were seized. Three years later, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals would throw out the case, saying that the grow operation discovered during the search lay outside of the scope of the officer’s search warrant.

2012 – A pungent smell and claims that Kenny Champ of Houston, Alaska, was illegally dumping raw sewage into a creek near Bench Lake led Alaska State Troopers to investigate Champ’s home. When they arrived, the 49-year-old Champ greeted troopers with a sawed-off shotgun and threats that he’d shoot if they didn’t leave his property. Next, troopers discovered 1,700 marijuana plants on the property. They also discovered that he had, indeed, been polluting the stream. Champ plead guilty to growing more than 1,000 plants.

2012 – Juneau musher Matt Giblin was sanctioned under the Iditarod’s drug testing program and was stripped of his 38th-place finish after testing positive for THC, an active compound in cannabis.

2013 – Petitioners were once again looking for signatures to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana. The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana turned in more than 45,000 signatures in support of the ballot measure in January 2014.

2013 – 20-year-old Nathaniel Harshman was sentenced in January 2013 to five years in federal prison for working on his father Floyd Harshman’s marijuana farm — a 477-plant grow off the Elliott Highway in Interior Alaska — as a teenager in 2011.

2014 – Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell approved the voter initiative to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana, to appear on the Aug. 19 ballot.

2014 – In mid-March, the legalization campaign, now dubbed the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, received a cash infusion of more than $200,000 dollars to be used for an “aggressive campaign” to build voter outreach, including print, television and radio ads. In the meantime, opposition to the measure has been relatively subdued thus far.

Contact Megan Edge at

Contact Laurel Andrews at