FAIRBANKS — The future of the oil tax debate in Juneau was uncertain Tuesday night after two key Fairbanks members of the Senate bipartisan coalition were defeated.
The Democratic members of the Senate Bipartisan Working Group had come under fire this election largely for the group’s refusal to pass an industry-backed plan to cut taxes on oil production. It’s Anchorage-area members appear to have survived attempts to unseat them.
Whether or not the coalition lives on, it’ll be certain that Fairbanks Democratic Sens. Joe Thomas and Joe Paskvan won’t be a part of it. Thomas was defeated soundly in a race against Republican Sen. John Coghill. Paskvan was defeated by former state Sen. Pete Kelly.
With 100 percent of the votes cast, Coghill prevailed with 58.45 percent of the 12,668 votes counted. Thomas trailed at just 41.26 percent.
Kelly, a former legislator, led with 52.75 percent of the 9,092 votes cast to Paskvan’s 46.92 percent.
At Election Central at the Westmark Hotel, Coghill said he believed the coalition could survive as a majority because there are still a number of Republicans who can benefit under such an arrangement but that it’s uncertain. Coghill said he would join Democrats in a coalition only if “it’s as conservative as we can get.”
“I don’t know how it’s going to come together,” he said. “There’s 12 Republicans, but two of them have been on that bipartisan coalition. It’s still an open question.”
The survival of the coalition will likely play a key role in the future of the oil tax debate. With the loss of members like Paskvan and Thomas who had been skeptical of Gov. Sean Parnell’s oil tax plan — they asked for guarantees on investment and production — the industry will likely see a more favorable reception from the Senate.
“In my view if we can make it a better investment climate up there, I’m interested in all the things that people have said,” he said. “Tax credits, capping progressivity. But unless we increase the investment environment, I don’t think we’ll move ahead.”
While Paskvan’s tough scrutiny on oil taxes had made him a prime target in this election, it’s likely his approach to fixing the problem of declining oil production could see some traction next year. At a candidate forum, Kelly said he agreed with Paskvan’s approach.
Kelly was not at Election Central on Tuesday night. There were reports that Kelly had left the country on a previously scheduled service trip.
However, despite a vigorous campaign over oil taxes, both Paskvan and Thomas were left feeling sour about the recent redistricting efforts that put them both up against tough demographics in Republican-leaning districts.
Thomas first won election in 2006, defeating incumbent Sen. Ralph Seekins by a 20-point margin. He followed up that success four years later with a nearly 20-point win over Pete Higgins.
This year, however, the odds had been stacked against a bid for re-election thanks to a recent redistricting effort that cut most of the strong Democrat-leaning areas out of his district and, instead, paired him with the Republican stronghold of North Pole.
Unlike most other districts, where undeclared voters rule, District A was 36 percent Republican, 35 percent undeclared and just 9 percent are Democrats.
“In my case, redistricting was not helpful, but be that as it may, that’s just the way it goes,” he said. “There’s not much one can do about that.”
Paskvan called it “Democracy in action.”
Unlike the other two Fairbanks-area races, Republican Click Bishop cruised to an easy general election win after winning a hard-fought three-way primary election. Bishop finished the night with more than 71 percent of the vote compared to Anne Sudkamp’s 28 percent to take Senate District C.
Bishop’s district covers House District 5 and House District 6, an area that includes Chena Ridge, University West, the airport as well as Delta, the Richardson corridor, parts of rural Mat-Su and Valdez.
After surviving a race that was largely fought over each candidates’ GOP bona fides, Bishop ran a campaign largely focused on working past party lines for what’s best for the Interior.
“I’m an Alaskan first and a Republican second,” he said.
Reflecting on his stance on the bipartisan coalition, Bishop repeated a line that he had offered multiple times during the primary: He’ll join whatever caucus gives him the best opportunity to help the Interior.
“It was 23 below out this morning,” he said. “I want to keep energy relief right at the forefront. I don’t want to see energy relief fall to the back burner.”
However, the exact impact of Tuesday night’s vote on the makeup of the Senate is unclear. Anchorage-area Sens. Bill Wielechowski and Hollis French appeared to survive strong efforts to unseat them as of press time on Tuesday night.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the coalition will survive. The forming of caucuses and the layout of power in Juneau will be decided in coming months in almost entirely closed-door talks and negotiations as people jockey for power.
At the very least, whatever Senate forms won’t be dominated by a single body as the previous session was. Either minority, a Republican minority to a Bipartisan majority or a Democratic one, will be large enough to merit committee assignments as well as a seat at the powerful Finance Committee.
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544 or follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.