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Alaska must take action as oil falls, but will it be 'tax the other guy'?

  • Author: Clem Tillion
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published December 29, 2014

For those of us who live by the sea, a drop in the price of oil is a joy indeed. I doubt if our Saudi allies and the rest of OPEC are going to not take action as oil reaches $50 a barrel, but for those of us who remember the price a decade ago when I could fill the old Stormbird's tanks for $800 -- last year, filling the same tanks cost $5,200, and last month it came down to $4,881.

And people say I should be happy because it's down 20 percent? All I can say is if it went to a dollar a gallon, it would still be more than I used to pay. Now, I do feel that raising the price of gas had a beneficial side: It slowed our reckless use of energy a bit and made a few of us start thinking of how to get our towns off carbon. In my grandfathers' day, they knew the whaling had to slow down, but let it continue because, after all, we had to have oil.

Now as the new year's fishing season begins, the worry is not just fuel, but what impact will a rising dollar and a falling yen have on the price of fish?

As our new governor and our Legislature meet, we once again face a large budget shortfall. The credit-rating agencies will be watching to see how we address it. Will we make a major effort to bring our state expenditures in line with our income? Or will we just kick the can down the road by using saving accounts to keep the balloon inflated? There is even talk of reinstating the old state income tax or state sales tax, while others look at the earnings of our Permanent Fund, surely in hopes the general public will be too stupid to understand that using the fund's dollars is in itself a tax but one paid only by Alaskans. An income tax would tap all of our guest workers as well as us.

There are three places in the world that get an "A" for fisheries management. They are Iceland, New Zealand and Alaska. We are the largest of the three. Fisheries are big private employers, and the industry depends on good science, good enforcement and tough judges. A failure in any one of these three could leave us in a New England-type mess where we all have to fight over the last few fish.

In the late 1970s, Alaska faced a similar shortfall. Those fishermen serving in our Legislature, rather than see the Alaska Department of Fish and Game or state cops cut back, pushed through a raw fish tax that has covered the cost of management to the state. Oil and fish pay their own way, but mining and tourism pay very little to our general fund.

If members of the public want services, they should be willing to pay for them. When we talk about building a road to a mining site (Ambler) my first thought is, "Who will pay for it? Will their taxes pay it back?" I am upbeat this year: A governor I have faith in, a good Legislature. My worry is will the people let them do a good job or just say, "Tax the other guy, not me?"

Clem Tillion is a retired commercial fisherman and a nine-term former Alaska state legislator. He lives in Halibut Cove, near Homer.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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