From Richard Mauer in Juneau —
Updated at 3:54 p.m.:
Senate President Gary Stevens just referred the oil-tax bill to the Rules Committee for further work.
Updated at 2:45 p.m.:
The oil tax bill is off the agenda for today's Senate session.
Sen. Bert Stedman, the co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and lead author of the current version of the bill, emerged from a caucus of the Senate bipartisan coalition to say that Senate President Gary Stevens has decided to pull the bill. Stedman said the measure isn't dead, but will require more work.
It's unclear where that work will take place, though possibilities include a return trip to the Senate Finance Committee, which only passed it out Wednesday night, or to an unusual full committee session of the Rules Committee, which normally is only a traffic cop for bills.
Stedman said he expected Stevens to make a more complete statement on what will happen next when the Senate goes back into session, expected now at 3:30 p.m.
The Senate’s 11 a.m. scheduled vote on oil taxes came and went with Senators huddled behind closed doors in caucus rather than on the floor in a public vote.
The caucus broke up before noon with at least some members of the Senate leadership still talking among themselves and the rank and file — if any senator could be called that — scattering for lunch. Some said they would go back into caucus at 1 and not hit the floor till 1:30 at the earliest. Check your local listing for details.
The senators taking their lunch said they are sworn to secrecy and wouldn’t say what had been going on. But others in the Capitol, privy to concerns that arose after the bill left the Senate Finance Committee Wednesday night, said that some senators believed the bill was too generous to industry in some ways, especially for the so-called legacy fields.
The bill provides tax incentives to the operators and owners of those fields — mainly BP, Conoco Phillips and Exxon — to boost production above what would be expected to be the fields’ normal decline as oil is pumped out. Because no one can know exactly what the rate of decline would be in the future, given all the geological and technical variables, the bill makes assumptions based on past history and logical projections.
If the bill is wrong on the high side and assumes a huge decline, producers wouldn’t have to do much to beat their number and get a big tax break on investments they would make anyway. If it’s wrong on the low side, the bill might do nothing to encourage the companies to boost production.
The concern among some Democrats is that the bill is indeed too generous. While the cost to the state treasury of an overly generous rate of decline might not be very high in the next few years, it could have a compounding effect long into the future, with no practical benefit of increased jobs or oil.
Is that what’s going on the in the caucus? No way to know, although disagreements could show up eventually on the floor with amendments or in the vote. It could also be possible, if closed-door agreements are reached, for the bill to take a side trip to the Rules Committee for modification before hitting the floor.