Alaska court sides with proponents of oil tax ballot measure in dispute with state

An Alaska Superior Court judge on Wednesday ordered the state to correct its summary of the ballot measure seeking to raise oil taxes on Alaska’s major oil producers, siding with proponents of the measure.

Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer did not provide an "impartial” summary of the measure as required by law, according to an 18-page order from Judge William Morse signed Monday.

The flawed sentence should be stricken from the summary, Morse wrote.

Meyer had mischaracterized a provision in the proposed act that said the producers’ tax filings shall be public, the group backing the initiative, Vote Yes For Alaska’s Fair Share Act, said in a statement Wednesday. The provision is designed to let Alaskans see the profits and costs of the major producers at the state’s three largest oil fields, including Prudhoe Bay, the group said.

The state has long kept those filings confidential.

The Alaska Department of Law disagreed with the ruling.

“We are disappointed that the court failed to see the straightforward accuracy of the sentence on public records, and its importance in informing voters of the effect of the changes that would be made by the initiative," said a statement emailed by Maria Bahr, an attorney with the state.

The ballot measure group filed suit in November, naming Meyer and the state Division of Elections.

The group initially objected to three statements made by Meyer in an earlier summary of the act that was included with petition booklets circulated by signature-gatherers last year. During the petition process that began last year, signature-gatherers showed people the proposed act itself and the group’s own description of it, according to Robin Brena, chair of the Vote Yes group.

In the summary of the ballot measure prepared later, Meyer altered two of those statements, and the ballot group dropped its opposition in those areas.

But the group continued the case, still opposed to Meyer’s language for the ballot summary that addressed the tax filings.

Meyer had proposed a summary claiming that tax filings would follow the state’s normal process for the public records act, rather than merely saying the proposed law would make the tax filings public, the judge wrote.

Meyer’s explanation means the state’s exceptions to the disclosure of public records “would remain available to deprive the public of access to the filings," Morse wrote.

The judge said Meyer placed “his finger on the scales” when he stated that the provision "does not mean or accomplish what its sponsors say was their intent or would be the effect of the initiative.”

“By siding with the possibility of confidentiality Meyer has engaged in partisan suasion. That is improper,” Morse wrote.

The state Law department said “the purpose of this sentence was to convey to the public the effect of the initiative — tax records would no longer be exempted from the Public Records Act (and deemed confidential) and the normal Public Records Act process would apply,” according to the email from Bahr.

Known as Ballot Measure No. 1, the proposed law will appear on the Nov. 3 general election ballot.

In a separate case, the Resource Development Council for Alaska and other groups opposed to the proposed tax increase have filed suit against the Vote Yes group. The business advocacy groups assert that signature gatherers in some cases were paid more than $1 a signature, a violation of state law. They say many signatures should be invalidated. That case is being heard by Alaska Superior Court Judge Thomas Matthews.

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