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Legal machinations obscure our rights
By Gregg Erickson


July 06, 2006

Nothing of significance happens in government these days without lawyers getting involved. Unfortunately, politicians and bureaucrats use ever-present legal issues as a way of dodging decisions about right and wrong.

Consider torture. It's immoral and it's illegal under U.S. and international law. Yet American security and defense officials now routinely use interrogation techniques that in any previous era would have been called torture, and that you and I would call torture if someone tried them on us.

For example, sleep-deprivation techniques so effective that they induce symptoms of psychosis. Federal officials don't call this torture, because they have a legal opinion that says it doesn't meet the legal definition of torture.

"Gee, I guess we'll just have to let the courts sort it out," is what we hear from officials. A government legal opinion has become a generic license to sidestep real issues of right and wrong. "That's for somebody above my pay grade."

Murkowski administration officials and the state's most important corporate citizens are using a similar dodge as they promote their scheme to jump-start the North Slope natural gas pipeline project. Oil industry officials claim they can't attract the capital to build a gas pipeline unless they have ironclad assurances that Alaskans will not hit them with higher taxes after the pipe is buried.

"At the end of the day, investors need to know what the rules are," said Ken Konrad, BP Alaska's vice president for gas.

Oil company and administration officials are betting that Alaskans want a gas pipeline so bad they will sell their right as a free people to make -- and change -- the laws they live under. If the shameful scheme goes through as Konrad and Gov. Frank Murkowski propose, current Alaskans and Alaskans not yet born will lose the right to change any law in any way that hurts the bottom lines of BP, Exxon Mobil or Conoco Phillips.

The Alaska Constitution says the Legislature cannot sign away its taxing power, but the administration has a legal opinion that says lawmakers can. "The courts will sort it out," says the governor's top attorney.

Is it proper for Alaskans to sign away their fundamental political right to self-government? The question isn't particularly difficult or complex, but whenever it arises, administration and oil company officials dismiss it as an arcane legal issue and set it aside.

We shouldn't let our politicians dodge this fundamental question. Ask yourself this: How would I feel if someone offered me $500 per year for not voting in any initiative election related to, say, abortion, marriage or some other subject? If you consider such a deal morally repugnant, then you don't need lawyers to sort out the gas pipeline contract -- it is cut from the same cloth, and just as morally and ethically wrong.

Alaskans should remind BP's Mr. Konrad that the system here in Alaska is the one investors have prospered under throughout American history. None of the great American railroad projects of the 19th century were purchased with concessions of democratic sovereignty, nor were any such incentives granted to sponsors of the great pipeline projects of the 20th century.

Successful corporations have always looked for creative ways to reduce the uncertainties surrounding investments and costs. More power to them. But so have households and individuals. I'd love a contract that says the oil companies couldn't raise my gasoline prices at the pump, and I'd love to hear my local government promise not to raise my property taxes.

Corporations and households alike deserve fairness. Let's recall that there is no fairer system of governance than the system in which a free people democratically decides what the rules are -- and when the rules need to be changed.

Gregg Erickson
Juneau, AK - USA

About: Gregg Erickson is an economic consultant and the editor of the Alaska Budget Report, a newsletter covering the state budget and economy.


Note: Comments published on Viewpoints are the opinions of the writer
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Sitnews.


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