JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Big oil drives this state, and this year it overshadows all other issues in the fight for control of the Alaska Senate.
The 20-member Senate is ruled by a coalition of 10 Democrats and six Republicans, and some GOP leaders, including Gov. Sean Parnell, want this alliance to end. For two years, the coalition has foiled Parnell's attempts to lower taxes on the oil industry.
Parnell, who considers the coalition bipartisan in name only, has argued that lower taxes will lead to more oil production — Alaska's economic lifeblood. But critics see his plan as a massive corporate handout with no guarantee that companies will invest more here.
No one in the Legislature has argued with the desire to reverse declining production trends and see more oil flowing through the trans-Alaska pipeline. The debate centers on how best to achieve that goal.
Democrats fear Republican majorities in both the House and Senate will mean a rubber-stamping of Parnell's tax-cut ideas, which they say could have devastating economic repercussions. State Democratic Party Chairman Don Gray said when one group has so much power you lose necessary checks and balances.
GOP Chairman Randy Ruedrich scoffs at the suggestion that anything will be blindly accepted. The House is firmly in GOP hands, and the election is unlikely to change that.
At least 16 Senate seats are up for grabs Nov. 6, with redistricting setting up two races between incumbent senators and leading to a handful of other bitterly contested fights. Nov. 1 is the deadline for any write-in candidates.
Ruedrich believes Republicans will emerge with 13 to 15 Senate seats.
Among the more closely watched races: Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, and Republican Bob Bell; Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, and Republican Bob Roses; Sen. Bettye Davis, D-Anchorage, and Rep. Anna Fairclough, R-Eagle River; Sen. Joe Paskvan, D-Fairbanks, and Republican Pete Kelly; and Sens. Joe Thomas, D-Fairbanks, and John Coghill, R-North Pole.
French and Wielechowski have been among the staunchest defenders of the current tax structure, known as Alaska's Clear and Equitable Share, or ACES.
Parnell has accused coalition members of doing nothing to turn around declining North Slope production, though the Senate late in the regular session passed a bill with provisions intended to encourage production from new fields. That proposal died in the House, where leaders said they didn't have time to vet it. Before that, the Senate spent two months delving into the oil tax issue but the coalition failed to reach agreement on an overhaul of the tax structure.