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Judge dismisses lawsuit against ballot measure group seeking to raise oil taxes

An Alaska judge on Thursday tossed out a lawsuit brought by business advocacy groups, handing a victory to backers of a ballot measure that seeks to raise taxes on major oil producers.

The decision is a loss for the Resource Development Council for Alaska, the Alaska Chamber and four other groups that in April sued state election officials and “Vote Yes For Alaska’s Fair Share.” The groups assert that signature gatherers in some cases were paid more than $1 a signature while working for the campaign, a violation of state law.

Anchorage Superior Court Judge Thomas Matthews focused on concerns about the constitutional rights of voters and the initiative process. Ignoring the “technical violation” of the payment law would support the free speech rights of all sides by allowing the vote to proceed, he said.

“Why should voters be disenfranchised because a circulator fails to meet technical statutory requirements?” he asked in a 30-page decision to dismiss the case.

After the decision, Robin Brena, an initiative sponsor and an oil and gas attorney in Anchorage, said in a statement, “We’re glad the judge rejected this attempt to disenfranchise the 39,000 Alaskans who petitioned to place Alaska’s Fair Share on the ballot.”

Matt Singer, an attorney in Anchorage representing the business advocacy groups, said the decision is under review and an appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court is likely.

”We respectfully disagree with the court’s ruling that the statute should not be enforced,” Singer said.

The proposed law is expected to raise oil production taxes by about $1 billion annually. It targets producers at the state’s top three oil fields, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Hilcorp Energy.

It’s set to appear before voters at the Nov. 3 general election.

The state in April estimated the industry would pay $268 million in those taxes this year.

OneAlaska, a group opposed to the ballot measure, was not a plaintiff in the lawsuit. The group has raised $9.9 million, primarily from the state’s largest oil producers, according to a recent quarterly filing with the Alaska Public Offices Commission.

The ballot measure group recently reported it raised about $665,000.

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