Oil-rich Alaska gavels in a way to cut a budget gap

State lawmakers said they were able to put politics aside to reach a compromise in an extended legislative session.
By Daniel J. Graeber Follow @dan_graeber Contact the Author   |  May 14, 2018 at 6:41 AM
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May 14 (UPI) -- Ending an extended session, state lawmakers in oil-rich Alaska reached a compromise that helped bridge a budget gap, the governor said.

"Lawmakers in the House and Senate -- Democrats, Republicans, and Independents -- worked together to reach a budget compromise," Gov. Bill Walker said in a weekend statement. "I commend the Legislature for passing a budget on time, and addressing the vast majority of the budget deficit."

A flurry of legislation moving since last week helped address Alaskan budget questions, with leaders saying they put political issues aside in favor of the state's future.

Rep. Adam Wool, a Democrat representing Fairbanks and the chairman of the House Energy Committee, said legislators were faced with difficult choices over the extended session.

"The most important thing we can all do to protect the future of Alaska is to realize that the politics of winners and losers is counterproductive to real solutions," he said in a statement.

House Bill 331 passed Friday. Walker requested the legislation to use bonds to pay oil tax credits to oil and gas exploration companies, clearing off some of the debt from the state balance sheet at a discount.

The state Department of Revenue prioritizes petroleum in its state revenue for fiscal year 2018. In total, the department said revenue could decline by about 15 percent for the year to $10.9 billion, but attributed that to strong returns in the previous fiscal year.

Walker praised a decision earlier this year by the U.S. Interior Department to pave the way toward eventual oil and gas drilling in the 1.6 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge designated as the so-called 1002 Area. The governor said opening ANWR up to drillers presented a historic opportunity for a state struggling with budgetary issues amid declining oil and gas production.

The state revenue forecast estimates average oil production of 521,800 barrels of oil per day in 2018 and 526,600 bpd for fiscal year 2019. Federal data show the five-week moving average for state production was closer to 500,000 bpd, down 5 percent from the same period last year.

Parts of the legislation call for a withdrawal of $1.7 billion from the state's permanent fund to help pay off government costs. Walker said steps taken during his administration have closed 80 percent of what was a $3.7 billion deficit.

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