The Alaska Legislature Plays the Shell Game


"The Conjuror," by Hieronymus Bosch (1496?). The painting accurately displays a performer doing the cups and balls routine, which has been practiced since Egyptian times.

“The Conjuror,” by Hieronymus Bosch (1496?). The painting accurately displays a performer doing the cups and balls routine, which has been practiced since Egyptian times. This is not a painting of the Alaska Legislature.

The Alaska Legislature is playing the Shell Game with the citizens it is supposed to represent. Bosch’s painting accurately shows the elements of the confidence game: a con artist, three cups, one pea and a gullible shill. The little ball is placed under one of the cups, and the con man moves the cups around, challenging the shill to guess which cup hides the pea. Of course, the con man has hidden the ball and it isn’t under any of the three cups. The shill always loses his bet.

Two legislative shell games have been exposed recently.

The first came when the Alaska House Finance Committee put a $30 million pilot program for treatment of substance abuse in the current fiscal year’s budget. A program to be provided in FY 2016-17 was budgeted to FY 2015-16. That means the supposed $800 million cut from the current year’s budget is something less than that, and the treatment program doesn’t appear in the budget for next year. Follow the cup with the little ball, folks, it’s easy, anyone can do it. Don’t notice the little ball isn’t under any of the cups.

And then there’s Dermot Cole’s revelation that under some circumstances the “new oil tax credit” under SB 21 can actually pay an oil company more than it spends drilling for “new oil.”1 That’s right, folks, an oil company can still make money even if it doesn’t find any oil. A guaranteed return. You have to admit, that is one hell of an inducement to drill in the Arctic. We were told that the tax credit would never exceed 35% of a company’s expenses; it was a major element in the expensive campaign by the oil industry to defeat the referendum to repeal SB 21. Follow the cup with the little ball, folks, it’s easy, anyone can do it. The Legislature claims to be surprised, surprised! that such a thing could happen. Don’t notice the little ball isn’t under any of the cups.

If you look closely at the Bosh painting, you’ll notice that the guy in white with the black surplice is picking the pocket of the shill. Some things never change, do they?

Follow the cup with the little ball, folks, it’s easy, anyone can do it. Don’t notice the little ball isn’t under any of the cups.


  1. Kudos to Dermot Cole for a really nice bit of investigative reporting. Dermot has had an excellent run of state budget articles recently. 
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