With Anchorage tax cap initiative, Americans for Prosperity expands local role

With a deadline fast approaching, supporters of an Anchorage tax cap initiative were racing last week to collect enough signatures to put the measure on April's city ballot.

At least 10 businesses in Anchorage and Eagle River had copies of petitions. Volunteers went to grocery stores and malls to gather thousands of names.

The efforts were mostly coordinated by the Alaska chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the Virginia-based advocacy organization founded by the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers.Through the initiative, Americans for Prosperity — which opened an Anchorage office less than two years ago — is demonstrating how it plans to play a larger role in local politics as it promotes smaller government and lower taxes.

On a rainy, muddy Thursday afternoon in front of Barnes & Noble in Midtown Anchorage, Jeremy Price stood in a black track jacket with the words "Americans for Prosperity" on the front and back.

Price, the 36-year-old director of the Alaska chapter, walked up to people as they approached the bookstore. His first question was usually: "Are you a registered voter?"

If the answer was "yes," he followed up with questions like "Do you care about property taxes?" Or a policy position: "We're trying to restore the Anchorage tax cap."

The Anchorage tax cap is still in place, but initiative supporters are hoping to reverse an October 2015 vote by the Anchorage Assembly that changed the starting point for calculating it. The change, which set the base for the calculation as the amount levied in the previous year by the Assembly, instead of the amount actually collected in the current year, allowed the city to collect over $1 million more in taxes -- and opponents say the increase in taxing capacity will carry forward each year.


Assembly members who supported the change, including Elvi Gray-Jackson and Patrick Flynn, said the measure didn't guarantee higher taxes, but gave policymakers the options of raising taxes or cutting services as state assistance goes away. Otherwise, the only option is to cut, they said.

But the October vote quickly became a rallying point for conservatives who said it undermined the intent of the cap. An initiative application to amend the city charter and undo the change was filed Jan. 5, and approved for the ballot nearly two weeks later.

An informal group, including former Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, stepped up to file the application for the initiative. But no central organization emerged to help coordinate signature-gathering, Price said. That's when Americans for Prosperity stepped in.

"We see ourselves as taking those opportunities to help move the ball," Price said.

The chapter opened its office in downtown Anchorage in summer 2014. There's a quote from Ronald Reagan painted on the wall in the conference room: "When you can't make them see the light, make them feel the heat."

Five people work in the office, Price said. Price, a native of Salcha, 33 miles southeast of Fairbanks, has worked in the offices of Rep. Don Young and Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

Local chapters pick their own causes to support, Price said. The national network provides the money and resources.

"We naturally think government should be small, and taxes should be limited," Price said. "The (Anchorage) tax cap was a great idea ... we don't want to see it diluted."

In 45 minutes outside Barnes & Noble, Price found several voters who thought the same.

Austen Armstrong-Winkler, a 21-year-old libertarian, signed the petition with little hesitation.

"I just generally think all property taxes should just be lowered," Armstrong-Winkler said.

Armstrong-Winkler said he didn't understand much about the tax cap itself. He said he thought it was related to how much businesses earn each year.

Asked by another voter for more details, Price explained the Assembly vote and the wording of the change.

One man took the petition and said he didn't care what it was about. Whatever it was, he told Price, "everybody deserves the right to vote."

Some conservatives say they're happy to see Americans for Prosperity on the state political scene. Suzanne Downing, communications director for the Alaska Republican Party, said that while she couldn't speak for the party, "I would say they're welcome."

"And who wouldn't? They do bring an important perspective," Downing said.

As well as perspective, the group brings monetary and political resources. During the Anchorage mayor's race last year, Americans For Prosperity made its first local move with a $15,000 radio and Internet ad campaign that attacked then-candidate Ethan Berkowitz as a big spender and sought to link him to President Barack Obama.


Price characterized that ad as an effort to "educate" voters on the political record of Berkowitz, a former Democratic state representative who went on to win the mayoral election.

Price said his questions to voters about "restoring" the tax cap constituted a form of activism, not campaigning.

"Do you see a difference between activism and campaigning?" Price said. "For us, this is going to be year-round."

That's a distinction that also affects how much the organization has to disclose. If it's campaigning, it could come under the state's campaign finance rules and be required to report its donors. If it's an education or activist organization, it can keep that information secret, as Americans for Prosperity appears to want.

Price said he expects the group to look more to state issues rather than local ones in the coming months. But he suggested that Americans for Prosperity might want to let voters know which Assembly members who voted in favor of the tax cap change.

For now, however, he said the focus is on gathering signatures for the initiative -- their goal is 8,000 by Tuesday.

Devin Kelly

Devin Kelly was an ADN staff reporter.