The last five days of the 28th legislature were a scramble to get bills out the door. Two items of particular interest to the residents of Sen. Bert Stedman’s district passed — literally in the eleventh hour. Stedman met recently with KCAW’s Rachel Waldholz to cover some of the major issues of the session.
Sitka Senator Bert Stedman, it all came down to the final day of the legislative session. That was when the House voted on two issues that Stedman views as key for the economy of Southeast Alaska: language authorizing Sitka to apply for a state loan to finish the Blue Lake hydro project, and a green light for the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority to finance two mines on Prince of Wales Island.
Both issues were attached as amendments to a larger bill, SB 99. The House passed the bill on Friday, April 25 – in literally the final hours of the two-year legislature.
It wasn’t supposed to come down to the wire.
Stedman: It’s not a good strategy to have some of the most key economic issues over a two-year session for your area all on one bill in the final moments of the legislature. It’s not how you plan things. But sometimes, your friends help you position yourself to have that accomplished (laughs).
This might not have happened in previous legislatures, when Stedman was co-chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. He held that post as part of the bipartisan majority that governed for six years, until 2012, when Republicans won an outright majority in the State Senate. I asked if it was frustrating to lose the chairmanship.
Stedman: It’s extremely rare to have someone from Southeast co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee. Lyman Hoffman was my co-chair and six years straight is a state record. You can’t expect to be chairman of that committee until you retire. That’s just not something you should expect.
And, Stedman said, Southeast might need to get used to having less power in Juneau. He said the bipartisan coalition, which empowered coastal lawmakers, is unlikely to return.
Stedman: I would say that it would be nice, but I wouldn’t expect it. We used to have a senator from Sitka, one from Petersburg and Wrangell, one from Ketchikan and one from Juneau: four senators from Southeast. Now we have two. Ten years from now, my expectation is we’ll have one and a half.
That’s largely because of population growth in the rail belt. Stedman has long said that the biggest divide in Alaska is not Republican vs. Democrat, but urban vs. rural: the railbelt vs the coast.
Stedman: And there is a difference in political philosophy amongst the islands. And I don’t know if we’re just secluded, if we’re the older part of the state, a little more mature in some of our viewpoints…We have a little longer longevity of Alaskans, and our economic interests don’t correlate as tight. As an example as I sit here in Raven Radio and I look out at the trollers sitting in ANB Harbor, you know there’s a vast amount of trolling poles sticking up in the air. You don’t see that in Anchorage. What you see in Anchorage is a discussion on oil. Hydrocarbons.
About those hydrocarbons. Stedman supports the repeal of SB 21, the new oil tax regime passed in 2013, which he argues tilted too far towards the interests of oil companies. This year, he presented his own oil tax bill, SB 192, which would raise the minimum tax on oil companies and reduce tax credits. The bill didn’t move out of the Senate Resources Committee; Stedman says the future of Alaska’s oil taxes now rests with voters. A citizen initiative to repeal SB 21 will be on the ballot in August.
Stedman: One of the things that people in the discussion should remember before you go to the polls here in August and express your opinion is that we’re an ownership state, we own the oil, and the tax mechanism is just a methodology for us to put a sale price on the hydrocarbon. And as the only state in the union that owns the subsurface, Alaska is different, and we need, we the people need to stand up for our ownership rights, because if we don’t stand up for it, I can guarantee that nobody else is going to.
Stedman also introduced a resolution urging the US Congress to transfer land in the Tongass National Forest to the state. He says he’d like to see more access to the Tongass for everything from recreational cabins to second-growth timber sales.
Stedman: It’s not a park. People should have access to it.
Stedman says state control of the land would be an economic shot in the arm for Southeast.
Stedman: We’re not the park for Rhode Island, or New Jersey. Maybe we should have New York go back the way it was 200 years ago…see what they think about that. Would be not very popular in New York
KCAW: I don’t really want the Tongass to look like New Jersey, though. I’m from New Jersey.
Stedman: Well, we’re not, the Tongass isn’t going to look like New Jersey! We’re not crazy. We’re not going to do anything like that!
The Tongass resolution passed both houses of the legislature, and is now waiting for the governor’s signature.