The Senate's cautious approach to reducing oil-production taxes edged past the governor's plan to cut taxes immediately and by a vastly larger amount, according to a poll commissioned by the House Majority Caucus that plumbed the public's views on a number of complicated issues before the Legislature.
The statewide telephone survey of 1,000 Alaskans also showed solid support for the governor, whose approval ratings of 61 percent edged past the House and Senate, according to pollster Dittman Research and Communications, a firm routinely hired by Republicans.
Dittman president Matt Larkin, explaining the distinction in why Alaskans polled favor Gov. Sean Parnell but not necessarily his tax reduction, said he believes Alaskans generally don't trust oil companies as much as they trust the governor.
The Senate and the governor have locked horns over oil taxes for more than a year, with the Senate recently putting the kibosh on a proposed bill from Parnell that would lower taxes on the oil companies by as much as $1.8 billion annually. The Senate introduced a measure this year that state officials have said would lower taxes by about $250 million annually in the beginning and $200 million in later years.
Forty-nine percent of those polled said they support the Senate's approach to studying the issue and insisting on guarantees before making minor changes to oil taxes, said Larkin. Forty-three percent said they support Parnell's approach to lower taxes immediately to spur more investment and increase oil production.
Larkin said the company tried to accurately reflect the Senate's message on the topic. The pollster's question noted that the Senate insists on "guarantees" that oil companies will invest if taxes are lowered. The idea of a guarantee appeals to people and may have drawn more support for the Senate's position, though the oil companies -- such as BP, ConocoPhillips and Exxon Mobil Corp. -- have guaranteed nothing, Larkin said.
Parnell has said the companies have promised they will invest as much as $5 billion to increase production, but many Alaskans have viewed that "promise" skeptically.
The Senate's message is resonating with more people, Dittman concluded.
Polls are playing a role in the battle, a critical issue before Alaska because oil flow through the trans-Alaska pipeline is dwindling, though because of high oil prices it still provides 90 percent of the state's unrestricted general fund budget. A recent poll by Hays Research Group found that 50 percent of Alaskans believe the state taxes oil companies either too little or about right, while 30 percent of Alaskans thought oil taxes too high. That poll was commissioned by state Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, a prominent opponent of Parnell's proposed cut.
The wide-ranging Dittman poll, unveiled Tuesday, touches on a number of controversial issues before the Legislature this year. Questions sought Alaskans' views on everything from oil taxes to coastal zone management to education spending. Here's a summary of the survey.
Some takeaways include that many Alaskans favor "significant" changes to the current oil tax regime, known as Alaska's Clear and Equitable Share, this year. They also want cheaper energy even if the state substantially subsidizes new projects such as the instate gas line. They support the film tax credit, but not when it subsidizes out-of-state movie star salaries. Finally, leadership failures by elected officials get the blame for delays on marketing Alaska's natural gas to Alaskans, and mismanagement is largely at fault for cost overruns and other problems with the Port of Anchorage expansion.
In the poll, 54 percent called Gov Sean Parnell's performance "good" and 7 percent called it "excellent." The House earned 51 percent "good" and 2 percent "excellent." The Senate earned 49 percent "good" and 2 percent "excellent."
Parnell's high rankings are consistent with other polls, perhaps because Alaskans support a breath of "calm, collected leadership" compared to the tumult that enveloped former Gov. Sarah Palin and her administration after she catapulted to national stardom, said Larkin.
Speaking at a press conference and taking questions about the validity of the survey, as it was conducted by a firm that openly works for Republican, Larkin said pollsters took great pains to phrase questions fairly and said the public should read the questions and make their own conclusions.
Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com
Editor's Note: This story was updated March 21. It originally stated that House Republicans commissioned the Dittman Research poll. More accurately, it was commissioned by the House Majority Caucus, made up of 22 Republicans and four Democrats.