Alaska senators concoct extreme income tax survey question to get desired answer

Ask Alaskans if they will support an income tax based on 6 percent of their federal tax bill, 15 percent of their federal tax bill or 25 percent of their federal tax bill, and the responses will be different. That's obvious.

It's also obvious that no one is proposing a tax at 25 percent of the federal bill.

But a Senate majority survey, which anyone with basic technology skills could have answered dozens of times, asked: "Do you support or oppose enacting a statewide income tax at 25 percent of federal income tax liability to raise $1 billion (about 30 percent of the current budget gap)?"

There will be little support for that approach among Alaskans. But that's the point, I suspect.

It's one thing for Senate leaders to ask Alaskans for their views on such critical issues as daylight saving time, for which there are no variables. It's another to peg a proposed income tax at an extreme level and call it a way to gather public opinion. It's manipulation.

Gov. Bill Walker has proposed what amounts to less than a 1 percent income tax on Alaskans. It would be 6 percent of the federal tax, while Rep. Paul Seaton, a Homer Republican, has proposed a tax that would be 15 percent of a taxpayer's federal tax bill. The former would generate about $200 million, while the latter would generate about $580 million.

Seaton's bill would also have a 10 percent long-term capital gains tax that would bring the overall total to $655 million. About $70 million of the taxes under Seaton's bill would be paid by nonresidents and certain corporations that don't pay state taxes would be included, another plus for his plan.


None of this is close to a state income tax equal to 25 percent of what a taxpayer pays Uncle Sam.

The higher percentage, though it is unrealistic, will show greater opposition than a lower number, which will make it easier for the Senate majority to point at the results and say, "Look, Alaskans don't want an income tax."

That's why the results are not to be taken seriously. So far, no legislator is claiming responsibility for using the 25 percent number, instead of 15 or 6 or 10.

In a press conference Monday, Sens. John Coghill and Peter Micciche said they did not know why 25 percent was chosen, but Micciche said the polling he's seen shows Alaskans would prefer a state sales tax.

"All the polling I've seen shows a very clear-cut lean toward a sales tax," he said.

It seems to me the Senate majority was pushing people to lean the way it preferred with its survey, which is no longer online.

A more credible survey is the poll taken by the Rasmuson Foundation that showed a near-even split among Alaskans about an income tax and somewhat more support for a sales tax.

The state is facing a multibillion-dollar fiscal gap and we are on a trajectory to empty all state reserves, excluding the Permanent Fund principal, within four years. That is if oil prices remain below $60 a barrel or so.

Polls and surveys are useful as far as they go, but it is a mistake to view any tax question in isolation. These are not "yes or no" policy calls for Alaskans. No public opinion survey will show the trade-offs and the associated questions, which include the level of state taxes, the future preservation of the Permanent Fund dividend and a host of state services from education to public safety.

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.

Dermot Cole

Former ADN columnist Dermot Cole is a longtime reporter, editor and author.