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Group pushing for oil tax breaks has 'elected' not to disclose funding

Amanda CoyneThe New York Times
Photo by Evan-Amos (Vanamo Media)

The Make Alaska Competitive Coalition, the nonprofit trying to persuade Alaska's lawmakers to lower taxes on oil companies, refuses to disclose how much money it's raising from its donors as it begins to unleash an ad blitz urging Alaskans to “vote for oil tax reform” in the Nov. 6 general election.

MACC officials and supporters held a press conference Tuesday announcing their advertising campaign, but repeatedly declined to say who is giving them money to fight for what could amount to tens of billions of dollars in oil tax cuts over the coming decades.

Last week, MACC officials and former Democratic Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles swung by Alaska Dispatch offices to discuss their mission. They also dodged questions about their funding and contributions.

At the press conference on Tuesday, Jim Jansen, MACC's co-chairman and chairman of Lynden Inc., said, "We've elected not to do that," referring to disclosure.

Why does it matter who is funding MACC?

Because the group has decided to weigh in with its controversial message as Alaskans face one of the biggest elections in years. A massive redistricting has resulted in elections for 59 of 60 seats in the Alaska Legislature.

Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell, a Republican and former oil company lawyer and lobbyist, submitted a bill during the last legislative session that called for cutting state taxes on oil producers by as much as $2 billion a year at high oil prices. Parnell, as well as the three largest oil companies in Alaska -- ConocoPhillips, BP, and ExxonMobil Corp., pushed hard for the tax break.

They argued that if the state slashed taxes on the companies -- which earn billions annually in profits from producing crude on state land -- then they would step up production. Alaska's Arctic oil patch, known as the North Slope, is in decline, and Parnell and those backing him think a tax cut will turn around the decline by encouraging new investment.

But Parnell has faced stiff resistance by a group in the Alaska State Senate known as the bipartisan coalition. Many members of the coalition believe that some sort of guarantee to produce more oil should accompany any tax cuts. The coalition was instrumental in blocking Parnell's tax reductions earlier this year.

As a result, the governor and others want to break up the coalition, and one way to do that is get new senators elected on Nov. 6.

Enter MACC, a pro-oil group run by MSI Communications, an Anchorage advertising and public relations firm. The group has been at it off and on for more than a year trying to convince Alaskans to support "oil tax reform."

And so now its latest ad blitz has begun with less than 50 days left before the general election.

On Tuesday, Jason Moore, an MSI employee and MACC’s spokesman, said the group's fundraising goal is between $300,000 and $500,000 for this election cycle. However, it’s impossible to know how much of that money has been raised already, or how it is being spent and by whom.

MACC's website lists numerous individuals and businesses throughout the state that have pledged their support for cutting oil taxes, but MACC refuses to say how much those individuals and businesses are giving.

Jansen, MACC's co-chairman, said his company, Lynden, as a top donor, has so far given $25,000 this election cycle.

“Most companies aren’t giving what Jim Jansen provides,” Moore said.

Members of MACC’s steering committee have repeatedly said that they don't need to disclose their donors because the group isn’t officially involved in the election.

Former Gov. Knowles, who sits on MACC’s steering committee and who was at Tuesday's press conference, said that all of MACC’s contributors are listed on the website. He also added that MACC doesn’t take money from oil producers.

MACC "goes far beyond transparency of any organization,” Knowles said. “We’re not supporting any candidates or anything on the ballots."

“This has nothing to do with the election,” he added.

It’s true that if the ads MACC is running don’t mention a specific candidate, then the group doesn’t need to register with the Alaska Public Offices Commission (APOC). And therefore, MACC can then raise and spend money outside of state disclosure laws.

State Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, who’s running in a tough race against Republican challenger Bob Bell, said he doesn’t buy MACC's argument that it's not trying to influence who Alaskans vote into the Legislature.

“I don’t think they can put a straight face on saying that (their) campaign has anything to do with the election,” he said. “They shouldn’t say things like that. It just damages their own credibility."

Another group is also airing commercials about the oil tax debate. This one, called the Putting Alaskans First Committee, supports the bipartisan senators who have resisted the oil tax break as proposed by Parnell. This group says on one of its TV commercials that “our senators” stood up for our oil and our jobs. “Let’s stand up for them,” urges the commercial, which displays images of senators, including Republicans, who didn’t vote for Parnell’s bill.

Because it features specific candidates, the group registered with APOC.

The top three contributors to the Putting Alaskans First Committee are Barney Gottstein, of the former Carrs-Gottstein grocery empire, the Alaska AFL-CIO, and the Alaska State Employees Association.

The group will soon have to file a disclosure with APOC and list all of its contributions and where the money’s going.

“We’re not afraid of disclosure,” said Vince Beltrami, the president of the Alaska AFL-CIO and chair of the Putting Alaskans First Committee.

Contact Amanda Coyne amanda@alaskadispatch.com