After two days of counting ballots, a 5% alcohol tax proposal remains favored by Anchorage voters by about 2,000 votes.
“It’s pretty incredible," said Assemblywoman Austin Quinn-Davidson, a sponsor of sending the proposal to the ballot.
The proposal’s success so far comes despite a history of failed alcohol taxes in the city, and during a time when the alcohol industry specifically, and the economy as a whole, has been ravaged due to the coronavirus pandemic.
By Wednesday night, the tax had 26,508 votes for and 24,495 votes against. Election officials believe they will continue processing ballots until Friday.
Darwin Biwer, owner of downtown Anchorage bar Darwin’s Theory and board member for the Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailers Association, which opposed the tax, said he’s still “cautiously optimistic.”
“It’s very surprising to me,” he said of the early results. “It’s premature to make any conclusions at this point.”
While it’s too soon to call, the tax’s early lead is notable. A similar tax proposal failed by more than seven percentage points in 2019. Prior to that, alcohol taxes had been proposed to the Assembly seven other times since 1984, and there were citizen movements for ballot initiatives in 2004 and 2007. None were successful.
Quinn-Davidson and co-sponsor Assemblyman Felix Rivera said when bars and restaurants closed in March and industry workers lost their jobs, they thought it could raise the bar for passing the tax.
“I worried about that," Quinn-Davidson said. "I wondered what would happen and how it would shape voters’ perspective on taxes in general.”
But Rivera and Quinn-Davidson think that this year they gave voters a better proposal by more specifically outlining where the money would go.
The tax is estimated to raise $11 million to $15 million per year. About a third would go to public safety, funding new police officers and non-sworn personnel at the police department. About $3 million would go to combating domestic abuse, sexual abuse and child abuse. The remainder would go to homeless shelters and substance misuse treatment.
Quinn-Davidson said the funding breakdown was informed by conversations with voters. She said this year, the proposal is narrowly focused on pressing issues.
Also, unlike in 2019, those pushing the tax mounted a formidable campaign. In 2019, an anti-tax campaign run by the Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailers Association spent more than $300,000 — about 10 times what the pro-tax side spent.
This year, officials with the nonprofit Alaska Children’s Trust, which helped run the campaign, said about $250,000 was spent in support of the tax proposal.
Sarah Oates, president of CHARR, said the anti-tax campaign spent about $100,000. State campaign finance reports show a higher figure, but Oates said a lot of that money was carried over from last year.
She and Biwer said the tax, if it passes, comes at an especially bad time.
“If it does pass, it will be very sad for our industry, because we are arguably already hurting more than any other industry right now,” Oates said.
Biwer said the campaign focused on radio, TV and online advertising. He’s puzzled why the campaign wasn’t as effective this year.
“Basically it’s the same thing they wanted to do last year,” he said.
Trevor Storrs, president of Alaska Children’s Trust, said his team focused on telling voters that an alcohol tax will invest in the city, leading to a better Anchorage. He said he believes it resonated with voters.
“People felt very much connected with it,” he said. “They appreciated someone actually having conversations and looking at new revenue sources that are needed for the community. Overall, it came off very positive.”
Whether it was more money, a more detailed tax proposal or other factors, an alcohol tax is closer to passing in Anchorage than ever.
“I don’t know why there is such a drastic change,” Biwer said. "Perhaps there won’t be when the count is done.”