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Mat-Su official tables code change meant to fund oil tax iniative fight

Zaz Hollander

WASILLA -- Mat-Su Assembly member and state House candidate Ron Arvin hoped to clear the way to spend local taxpayer dollars in the fight to defeat the statewide ballot measure to repeal state oil tax legislation.

But this week, Arvin scrapped his bid to change borough code rather than give that kind of spending power to future Assemblies with unpredictable political leanings.

While state law allows local governments to influence a ballot proposition, Mat-Su Borough code bans it. Arvin's proposed ordinance would have changed that provision and allowed local taxpayer funding to influence state propositions and bonds if appropriated by the Assembly.

Arvin, reached by phone in North Dakota on Tuesday, said he proposed the change to allow the borough to agitate against Proposition 1. The citizen's initiative would restore Alaska's prior oil tax regime, replaced by the Legislature with a new system that supporters say makes Alaska more competitive but critics say favors the oil industry at the state's expense.

Arvin wanted the Mat-Su to join other local governments participating in the Vote No on 1 Coalition, he said. "It's important for local governments to weigh in on issues as critical as oil drilling and regulation and tax and how it affects our global economy in the state of Alaska."

As of Wednesday, the North Slope Borough was the only governing body that's taken a formal position by joining the coalition, according to coalition spokeswoman Lindsey Spinelli.

The coalition had raised slightly more than $195,500 through Feb. 1, the date of the group's most recent campaign disclosure report filed with the Alaska Public Offices Commission.

Arvin said he decided late last week to pull his state campaign spending proposal rather than "open the barn door" to unpredictable Assembly actions involving other state initiatives down the road.

"I don't have a problem raising hard questions," he said. "I would be concerned about future assemblies not having that prohibition and weighing in on something I don't agree with."

The ordinance was already scheduled for a public hearing at Tuesday night's borough Assembly meeting.

With Arvin still flying back to Anchorage when the meeting started, Borough Mayor Larry DeVilbiss announced the absent Assembly member's desire to pull the ordinance off the agenda and postpone it indefinitely.

Some in the audience had showed up to testify against the ordinance -- they did later get to speak during a general public comment period -- so that prompted questions from Assembly members including Jim Sykes, a critic of the proposal.

"While I do sympathize with Mr. Arvin wanting to pull this, I do want to know that we can hear from the public if they want to testify," Sykes said. "We don't generally get a lot of public testimony so if we snatch that opportunity away from them that doesn't look too good."

Sykes, a two-time Green Party U.S. Senate candidate serving his first term on the borough body, earlier called Arvin's proposal a strike against the nonpartisan structure of local assemblies at a time that the borough can ill afford to shell out extra cash. He voiced his concerns in an opinion piece published Sunday in the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman newspaper.

Borough managers say they're facing the likelihood of less state revenue sharing dollars as they try to hire more full-time emergency responders and combat a nearly $8 million potential shortfall at the port.

"How many paramedics, firefighters or teachers would have to be cut to fund political propaganda on a statewide measure when we already struggle to meet our critical needs?" Sykes wrote.

Arvin never publicly said why he wanted to change the code.

The construction consultant has announced his bid for the state House seat currently held by Rep. Bill Stoltze, the Chugiak Republican running for state Senate.

His professional positions include senior project manager for Ahtna Engineering, according to his campaign website. The company is a subsidiary of Ahtna Inc., a regional Native corporation with numerous other subsidiaries, some affiliated with the oil industry. Ahtna has not joined the No on 1 group, according to the coalition website.

Asked about his employment with Ahtna on Tuesday, Arvin said he is proud of his pro-development background but his employers didn't factor into his spending proposal.

"This is public policy that we're setting at the borough level," he said. "My public service is quite different from my employment."

Michelle Church, a former Assembly member who ran unsuccessfully against Arvin in 2012, said during Tuesday night's meeting that Arvin's proposal is part of a "partisan agenda" that has strengthened on the Assembly in recent years.

Church pointed out that Arvin, along with Assembly member Jim Colver, is seeking higher office.

"It is too great a risk and too obvious a risk that you are seeking party support for carrying the water for the Republican agenda," she said.

Colver later said he had no involvement in Arvin's proposal and planned to vote no. Arvin joined the meeting by phone too late to comment.

The Mat-Su Assembly in 2007 and 2011 voted down efforts to change code to allow spending on local, rather than state, ballot issues.

A number of municipalities around the state have made use of that ability, according to Kathie Wasserman, executive director of the Alaska Municipal League.

Nearly 40 local governments, communities and school boards opposed a 2008 initiative that would have banned state and local governments and school districts from using public money for lobbying or political campaigns.

Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or 257-4317.


By ZAZ HOLLANDER
zhollander@adn.com