Tax-cut foes say their referendum will make ballot

ldemer@adn.comJuly 10, 2013 

Backers of a referendum to repeal the oil-tax cut passed this year by the Legislature say they've met challenges of geography, a tight turnaround and in-your-face opposition and they expect to turn in booklets with an abundance of voter signatures by Saturday's deadline.

If the Division of Elections confirms that the group collected signatures of at least 30,169 registered voters, 10 percent of the number from the last general election, voters will get their say on the August 2014 primary ballot.

"We're estimating we're at about 35,000 signatures and counting," Pat Lavin, one of the leaders of Vote Yes -- Repeal the Giveway, said Wednesday from his home office. "We're feeling very good about where we are numbers-wise." They are hoping for 40,000 names in booklets.

Signature gatherers aim for a hefty cushion to account for people who sign more than once or who aren't registered Alaska voters.

Petition booklets from around the state were still arriving and the Vote Yes team intended to keep working into Saturday.

"Nome came yesterday and there is an interesting route that one pile of books from Barrow took," Lavin said. A volunteer from Barrow heading out of state planned to send the booklets through Alaska Airlines' GoldStreak package express but that office was closed. So she took them on her trip.

"The next thing I know I got contacted from Atlanta that she was FedExing them from there," Lavin said. A tracking number showed they just arrived in town, he said.

At issue is whether to wipe out Senate Bill 21, what Gov. Sean Parnell and other supporters call the "More Alaska Production Act," accenting what they say is the measure's goal of stemming a decades-long decline in the yield from the North Slope.

Critics call it an unnecessary giveaway of a valuable resource that could cost the state nearly $5 billion through fiscal year 2019.

Industry groups pushed for the new law and some industry leaders are working against the referendum. The Alaska Support Industry Alliance, with 400 members in the oil, gas and mining sectors, went around the state to discuss the details of the new law and found the public was surprised to learn that a measure branded by critics as "corporate welfare" would require the oil companies to perform to get some of the tax breaks. The Alliance hosted a breakfast in Fairbanks and two hot dog picnics on the Kenai Peninsula called "Frank Facts about Senate Bill 21."

Still "we had no delusion they were not going to get the signatures," said Rebecca Logan, alliance general manager.

Already oil field work is picking up, she said. BP, for instance, announced it was going to bring two additional drilling rigs to the North Slope. A local fabrication shop is building equipment that normally would be manufactured Outside.

Parnell, the most prominent tax-cut booster, said Wednesday in an e-mail: "At this point, I don't think we should chase away Alaskans' opportunity with an ill-advised referendum. The question has to be asked of referendum supporters, 'What's your plan for Alaska if you want to take us back to a system with guaranteed production decline?'"

Sen. Donny Olson, D-Nome, helped gather referendum signatures in his sprawling district, Lavin said. Robo calls during the final push by referendum backers featured Sen. Bill Wielechowski, one of the fiercest critics of the tax cut, urging voters to sign a petition.

In late June, Sen. Hollis French, who like Wielechowski is an Anchorage Democrat, took a road trip to Seward with Lavin and Vic Fischer, a former state senator, an author of the Alaska Constitution, and a critic of the oil tax cuts. They explained the new law's implications and enlisted volunteers to collect more signatures.

"It was to fire up that local base and was a little in advance of the Fourth of July, which we know is huge in Seward," Lavin said.

Sen. Bert Stedman, a Sitka Republican opposed to such a large oil tax cut, chuckled over walking into the Backdoor Cafe, which he called a magnet for "liberals," with his wife, Lureen, and 18-year-old daughter, Susie, to sign the petition in front of local reporters.

"This is her first endeavor as a voter," Stedman said of his daughter.

He said the public won't stand for the tax cuts once it sinks in how much of the profits will go to industry and not the state when it's "the people's oil."

"Even if the referendum failed, in three or four years the people are going to be, in my opinion, extremely agitated. We can hide it for a couple of years with our huge budget surpluses from the past," Stedman said. "But eventually the chickens come home to roost."

The new tax won't provide the stability that Parnell was seeking, Stedman predicted.

In Fairbanks this week, the same conservative Republican senators and representatives who pushed the tax cut outlined the case against the referendum at a Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce event. Absent was state Sen. Click Bishop, a Republican holdout who ultimately was the key vote in support of the tax overhaul.

Petition busters hired by political consultant Art Hackney to dissuade people from signing the booklets probably ended up helping the referendum cause "by mobilizing people who didn't like that tactic," Lavin said.

One of the biggest challenges was checking whether the people signing were registered voters, and from where. In 30 of the 40 state House districts, at least 7 percent of the voters must have signed on.

Lavin said a core group of 20 volunteers entered the names from the petitions to check against the state's voter database. With a flood of books arriving the last few days, they struggled to keep up. But the referendum supporters expect to end up with enough from all 40 districts, Lavin said.

Because the group is trying to repeal a law, not create a new one, the Constitution says the signatures must be gathered within 90 days from the end of the legislative session -- a tight deadline.

The state Division of Elections plans to open its Ship Creek office on Saturday afternoon to accept the booklets. The state then has 60 days to verify the signatures. It expects to get the job done a bit quicker, said elections director Gail Fenumiai.

Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.

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