Numb with numbers? Oil tax boils down to these questions

Elise Patkotak
OPINION: Beset by dueling numbers and enough TV ads to choke a cable box, columnist Elise Patkotak cuts through the noise to fundamental questions.

If you are one of the 10 or so people out there who really understand the issues involved in the Ballot Measure 1 oil tax debate, feel free to move on to sports or comics. If, however, you are like me and probably most Alaskans who feel they are being bombarded with conflicting numbers, statements, claims and ads … oh lord, the ads … then please read on.

I’m not an economist, as anyone who has ever asked me a question about financial issues and seen the deer-in-a-headlight look that comes over my face knows all too well. On the other hand, I have friends who save every receipt, balance their checkbook monthly and do their own taxes. They too look perplexed when asked about Ballot Measure 1. It’s creating jobs. It’s not creating jobs. It will make our economy stronger. It will cost us billions. It’s a financial boon for Alaska. It’s a financial giveaway.

So how is the average Alaskan supposed to understand and vote with any intelligence on this issue?

All the ads on TV relating to this topic seem to highlight average Alaskans speaking about how much the oil tax reform initiated by the Parnell administration has helped Alaska’s economy. I would find this argument much more compelling were not all those ads paid for by the oil companies. After 50 ads in one evening of TV viewing, it feels like overkill. I find myself perversely wanting to vote "yes" just because I feel as though they are trying to shove "no" down my throat. There is a David-and-Goliath battle happening on the airwaves and I, for one, am starting to feel very bad for David.

I do not view the oil companies in Alaska as some sort of enemy. Yes, I worry about the environment. Given their general history of not actually being able to do anything about oil spills in water despite all those fancy plans on paper, I think this is a reasonable worry in a state with a major fishing industry. But I also know that they can be great neighbors and corporate citizens. The names of oil companies in this state usually are at the top of any fundraising campaign for just about every charity we have. I’m pretty sure, though, when the oil goes dry and they pack up and leave, so will their charitable contributions. So while viewing them as good neighbors, I also view them realistically. And realistically, I can’t imagine them spending as much money as they have on advertising against Ballot Measure 1 if they didn’t have one heckuva stake in maintaining the change.

In today’s world of competing realities, it is said that you can have your own opinion but not your own facts. Facts should be facts, information devoid of emotion or political leaning, information that is provable. The problem many of us have with this debate is that both sides are presenting often contradictory facts that are absolutely confusing to the average person. So whose facts are we supposed to believe?

Well, if we can’t muddle through all the confusing numbers being bandied about, let’s try some common sense. Would the oil companies be this passionate about Ballot Measure 1 were it not in their very best interests? Do their best interests align with Alaska’s best interests in extracting its non-renewable resources? And does anyone really believe the oil companies will pull up stakes and leave the state if they only get to make a $5 billion profit instead of $7 billion? As long as we have oil and gas, we have an asset someone will want. Are the oil companies really going to walk away from that? If they are primarily responsible to their shareholders to create a distributable profit each year, will they ever put Alaska’s needs first? Is the current exploratory climate really the result of oil tax reform or would those assets be getting explored anyway?

I probably won’t know how I’ll vote until I’m actually in the voting booth. I have a feeling I’ll be hearing the tagline to all those commercials playing in my head like that fragment of song that loops and re-loops through your brain no matter how hard you try to dislodge it. The real question is how that will affect the way I vote.

Elise Patkotak's latest book, "Coming Into the City," is available at AlaskaBooksandCalendars.com and at local bookstores.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.