Alcohol tax dominates Mat-Su election spending

Zaz Hollander

WASILLA -- An alcohol tax going before Matanuska-Susitna Borough voters Oct. 1 has spurred a spending battle as both sides try to bolster the normally meager local election turnout.

Along with the tax, Wasilla voters will decide whether to give former Rep. Vic Kohring another shot at elected office and Palmer voters will choose a mayor. Several other city council, Mat-Su Assembly and Mat-Su School Board seats are also up for grabs, as is a school roads bond package.

But it's the alcohol tax that's garnering the broadest attention and the most money.

Pitched by the Mat-Su Assembly as a way to offset the borough's reliance on property taxes, Proposition No. B-1 would enact an areawide 5 percent tax on alcoholic beverages sold within the Mat-Su. Tax revenues would go into the borough's areawide budget to fund education and emergency services.

Tax backers and critics are spending a combined $100,000 to sway potential voters - and get them to the ballot box.

Both sides say they hope the broad appeal of an alcohol tax draws out voters. Like many municipalities around the state, the Mat-Su doesn't tend to draw big turnouts for local elections. Last year, 18.5 percent of the borough's registered voters cast ballots. The year before, it was 15.6 percent though in 2010, turnout was more than 21 percent.

'Fired up people'

Anti-tax crusaders hope the threat of jacked-up booze prices is enough to prod people to the polls. The Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailer's Association is spending $50,000 on pamphlets, door-hangers and radio spots in hopes of defeating the tax. Bar and restaurant licensing fees already to back to local public safety agencies, according to CHARR president and CEO Dale Fox.

"Some people get very angry at government intrusion and single segments of the population getting singled out," Fox said. "There's some pretty fired up people. Are there enough of them? We'll see on Election Day."

At the Moonshine Shop in Big Lake, owner Jill Pock chatted with a half-dozen customers over the weekend about the ballot proposition. She talks about how high state alcohol taxes already are and the fact that statewide alcohol consumption actually increased following tax increases. She also points out that the money raised through the tax wouldn't go straight to, say, emergency medical services but rather to the larger areawide fund.

Generally, Pock said, she tries to steer clear of politics and religion at the counter.

"We're trying to encourage them to vote, regardless of how they want to vote," she said. "Exercise your right to vote, always."

A community issue

Tax supporters are working to reach the local electorate too.

CHARR pegged its spending around a $50,000 advertising campaign purchased by the Mat-Su Health Foundation to support the tax. The foundation is the nonprofit philanthropic arm of the Mat-Su Regional Medical Center.

More than 500 Mat-Su residents surveyed by the foundation ranked alcohol and substance abuse as the community's greatest health challenge, according to a report issued this month.

"This isn't our issue. This is the community's issue," said the foundation's executive director, Elizabeth Ripley. "The community has spoken loud and clear."

The $50,000 "get-out-the-vote" campaign contract went to Lynwood, Wash.-based Wilson Strategic Communications, according to Ripley. Residents this week should start getting direct mailers and hearing radio spots, as well as getting calls at home. Ripley said the foundation also has "a huge grassroots campaign" tapping into the Valley's faith and nonprofit communities as well as Thrive Mat-Su, a substance abuse prevention coalition.

Ripley referenced studies that show higher alcohol prices reduce youth drinking, drunk driving and alcohol-related mortality.

"We estimate this small 5 percent alcohol tax will save at least three lives a year in the Mat-Su," she said. "That could be your father, your child, your husband."

School roads bond, local races

Along with the alcohol tax, borough voters will decide a $16.2 million bond package to build roads to eight schools including the new Knik-Goose Bay middle and high school. The bonds will only be issued if the state matches the money.

Two borough Assembly seats are up for grabs. Doug Glenn and Jim Sykes are vying for District 1, which stretches from Chickaloon to Palmer. Incumbent Warren Keogh opted not to run again. In Palmer's District 2, challenger Matthew Beck is taking on incumbent Noel Woods.

On the school board, incumbent Neal Lacy faces three challengers and incumbent David Cheezem faces one.

Kohring, who pleaded guilty in 2011 to a single federal felony for accepting bribes from former VECO chairman Bill Allen, is running against incumbent Brandon Wall for a three-year term. Another seat left vacant by the June death of Steve Lovell will be filled by a three-way race between Holly Herrick, David Wilson and Glenda Ledford.

In Palmer, city councilor Linda Combs - her husband, John, is the city's former mayor - is challenging incumbent DeLena Johnson for the mayor's post. Four candidates are vying for two open city council positions: Steve Carrington, Elden Tritch, and incumbents Edna DeVries and Kathrine Vanover.

Houston voters will see one contested city council race on the ballot - Ron Gaffney versus James Johansen - and a repeal of the January expiration date for an additional 2 percent sales tax on fireworks sales.

Reach Zaz Hollander at or 257-4317.