By Heidi Zemach for SCN
The statewide campaign to put a public referendum on the ballot repealing Senate Bill 21, the reduction in state taxes for oil companies in Alaska, is picking up steam as it heads into its final weeks. It arrived in Seward this week. SB 21 was enacted by the Alaska state legislature April 14, 2013. The grassroots campaign to place a repeal referendum on the August 2014 ballot, and thus revert Alaska back to the way oil taxation had been under ACES, needs to collect 30,000 signatures by July 13th. Within that number, the campaign needs signatures from seven percent of the people who voted in the last election in 30 of the 40 house districts of the state. In District 28 this amounts to a requirement of 565 valid signatures.
They’re on their way to meeting that goal, said Pat Lavin, statewide coordinator for the “Vote Yes-Repeal the Giveaway” campaign. Although a few campaigners were seen at the Moose Pass Solstice Festival collecting signatures last weekend, this week the campaign’s key leaders were in town. They gathered 30 signatures in under an hour at Safeway, said Alaska Senator Hollis French. As word got out from shoppers, their friends and family members rushed over to sign the petition as well, or they showed up later at a signing event at the Resurrect Art Coffee House, which probably garnered the campaign another 20-30 signatures.
Speaking at the “Rez Art” event, Alaska Senator Hollis French said he and a handful of concerned fellow democrats and some moderate republicans had fought hard, but ultimately failed to make the governor’s proposed tax reductions dependent on the oil companies actually producing more oil, or to include progressivity in the taxation. He is now a leading voice in the campaign to repeal it.
French was joined by the referendum’s chief spokesperson, Vic Fischer, a renowned Alaska Statesman and Founding Father, and statewide “Vote-Yes” campaign coordinator Pat Lavin. The referendum’s other two sponsors include Bella Hammond, the widow of Former Alaska Governor Jay Hammond, and Jim Whitaker, the former mayor of Fairbanks.
According to Fischer, the Alaska public was “steamrolled” into passing the “tax giveaway” by a legislature bolstered in the last election by extreme-leaning representatives from new legislative electoral districts that were gerrymandered by a Republican-dominated Redistricting Board. These districts have since been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, and must now be redrawn—hopefully more fairly, he said. The result was nevertheless a senate that approved SB 21 by a vote of 11 in favor and 9 against, with no votes to spare. The two votes that made the difference ultimately came from two lawmakers who had been employees of ConocoPhillips, one of the three principal beneficiaries of the proposed tax reductions, and who should not have been participating in the vote, he said.
“So I don’t feel this was necessarily a fair vote, or representative of all Alaskans,” Fischer said. “And aside from that, I personally believe that the legislature did not give proper consideration to the tax reduction that would assure that there would be investment in Alaska. There were vague promises, and a lot of listing of what the main oil companies would do, but there were no conditions attached to the tax giveaway.”
The 89-year old Alaska Statesman bemoaned the lack of civility these days in government generally, and the loss of bipartisanship between colleagues that once characterized Alaska politics.
“We have a legislative process that’s dysfunctional at the state level and the federal level and I don’t think anyone is satisfied with what we have,” he said. “I served in the Constitutional Convention. I served in the last Territorial legislature, I served in the state senate back in the 80’s, and in those years people talked to each other, they compromised, they took into account all views, all options, and they worked together. In this last legislature lines were drawn, the majority would not talk to the minority, different caucuses would not talk to each other, and they did not take into account alternative views or any good ideas. I think we’ve had a very dysfunctional legislative process and I hope we can rectify that.”
Senator Gary Stevens, a moderate republican from Kodiak who had been Senate President, and also represented this Senate district prior to redistricting, is an example of one of those decent, old-style politicians, Fischer said. But since the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, corporations can buy elections, and there are fewer people like Stevens being elected.
With oil prices as high as they are, business on the North Slope and elsewhere in Alaska has been booming in recent years, despite the taxes required under ACES, said Lavin. In the future, production levels may continue to grow, but without guarantees or sunset provisions in place, Alaska may not see the tax savings re-invested in the state. What they will see is the state’s budget shrink, and programs cut due to lower tax revenues. Alaskans will see $4.5 billion that could be used to build roads and educate our children over the next five years given over to three of the richest corporations in the world: ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips and BP, French said. They all did very well during this past session, he said, but education was flat-funded, and mental health programs were cut. The worst mistake of Senate Bill 21, however, was not including progressivity in the tax reform. If there’s too much progressivity under ACES, and the state reverts to that, the legislature can modify it, and make it more fair for all, French said.
In the next few weeks some local residents will circulate the petitions in the Seward area, and petitions will be available at the Resurrect Art Coffee House. Signature gatherers from Anchorage will help circulate the petitions among the crowds of people who will be in town for the July Fourth /Mount Marathon Race, and through the weekend.
Even if the referendum qualifies for the 2014 ballot, campaign organizers realize they will face a tough battle ahead as their effort to help educate the Alaska public on the complex issues involved. They foresee a multi-million dollar advertising campaign mounted against the repeal, funded by corporations who stand to benefit from the lower tax rates, and who won’t have to disclose their source of financing.