Retired North Pole resident Michael Gendreau, 69, is against Ballot Measure 1.
“I don’t trust the ‘Vote Yes’ side, I’m going to vote no," he said. “I’ll be honest with you, I don’t totally trust the oil industry, but I try to look at it with common sense.”
The industry is struggling amid the crash in oil prices this year. And with drilling possible in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, higher taxes could discourage investment there, he said.
“I don’t want to take a chance and gamble with Alaska’s future,” he said.
Anchorage resident Reggie Peratrovich, 47, is voting yes.
Peratrovich held positive views of the oil industry growing up in the 1980s, when revenue from the companies funded much-needed infrastructure in Alaska, he said.
But Peratrovich, a disabled veteran, said he developed more negative feelings about the oil industry over the years, colored by events like the 2006 corruption scandal involving oil field service company Veco and bribes to Alaska lawmakers.
“It sounds awful from a research standpoint, but I just dismiss what they say,” he said.
Ballot Measure 1, also known as the Fair Share Act, runs just two pages. But its amendments to Senate Bill 21, the existing oil production tax law, are so complicated that many voters will gloss over the details, people watching the campaign closely say. Instead, they’ll base their votes on preexisting views of the oil industry.
Alaskans recognize the oil companies have been good for the state, said Kara Moriarty, campaign manager for OneAlaska — Vote No on One.
But, she said, “some Alaskans will take whatever we say with a grain of salt.”
The measure will be decided on Nov. 3. Early voting at select sites and by absentee ballot is underway.
If it passes, the ballot measure will increase production taxes paid by the state’s leading oil producers, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Hilcorp Alaska.
Marc Hellenthal, a longtime Alaska political consultant who is not working for either side, said oil industry concerns about how Alaskans think about the big oil companies are borne out in OneAlaska’s advertising.
The heads of the oil companies aren’t featured in the ads because they’d be viewed skeptically, he said.
“They have all sorts of testimonials,” Hellenthal said. “Small businessman here, Native leader there. They are trying to put out people that ordinary people will trust."
Such simple messaging has worked before, Hellenthal said. In 2014, funding from the oil industry helped defeat a citizen-led attempt to repeal Senate Bill 21, he said.
OneAlaska has spent about $19 million to oppose the measure, far more than the $1.5 million spent by proponents Vote Yes for Alaska’s Fair Share, according to reports filed with Alaska campaign regulators.
The vast majority of donations to OneAlaska has come from the three companies targeted by the tax increase, as well as BP, which is trying to complete the sale of its Alaska assets to Hilcorp.
“(The oil companies) are obviously worried, or they wouldn’t be spending that much money,” Hellenthal said.
Moriarty, with OneAlaska, said that any industry targeted with higher taxes would spend money to stop the tax.
She said a small group of Alaskans hold a deep-rooted skepticism of the industry and will not ever change their views.
Some of that is related to the skepticism of big U.S. corporations that’s common throughout America, said Moriarty, also president of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, the industry’s trade group in Alaska. The oil industry is the state’s largest source of private-sector revenue, so they are viewed more critically than other industries in Alaska, she said.
She said OneAlaska consists of a diverse group of Alaskans and the campaign has taken steps to feature Alaskans who voters can relate to.
“People trust people who are like them,” she said.
Moriarty said polling shows that OneAlaska started with a “pretty massive deficit.” But she said momentum is on OneAlaska’s side. She declined to provide polling details.
Moriarty argued the issue isn’t about the oil companies. It’s how the measure will severely hurt the economy if it passes, she said.
The campaign is gaining ground with voters in part by presenting third-party, independent facts, she said.
Robin Brena, chair of the Vote Yes group, argues the measure will help the economy by increasing state income that will lead to new jobs.
Brena asserted that many Alaskans know the oil companies aren’t being forthright with them, and that the companies operate in their own best interests.
“(The oil companies) will take as much as we allow them to take — and they are — and it’s up to us to stand up for ourselves,” he said.
Newer voters may be an opportunity for opponents
Larry Persily, a former federal gas line coordinator in Alaska, said many voters don’t know where to stand on the measure.
Tax increase proponents promise a revived Alaska economy if Ballot Measure 1 passes, he said. The oil industry predicts just the opposite.
Events that made some Alaskans look unfavorably on Big Oil — including the 2006 Veco scandal — won’t resonate with a lot of today’s younger voters, Persily said.
Those newer voters, if the vote is close enough, could help decide the election, he said.
“People will say, ‘I don’t understand it, but I trust so-and-so and he knows this stuff,’” Persily said.
Stephen Haycox, emeritus professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said state fiscal deficits and the reduction of the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend in recent years has made the debate harder for the oil industry this time.
“All that has raised significant anxiety with the electorate which can translate into a little less trust of the oil industry,” Haycox said.
Neil Best, a third-year Alaskan from Eagle River, said he’s skeptical of the oil industry’s arguments about the proposal in part because it’s spending millions of dollars to stop it.
But Best, 42, generally believes the regional Alaska Native corporations that represent Native shareholders across the state, he said.
He said an ad featuring Kim Reitmeier, head of the ANCSA Regional Association representing the state’s 12 regional Native corporations, has influenced his views.
The ad is funded by ConocoPhillips Alaska, BP Alaska and Hilcorp.
It cites a report that the Alaska Native corporation group commissioned, by the American Action Forum, a conservative policy institute, forecasting serious economic pain in Alaska if oil production taxes rise.
(Brena, with Vote Yes, has rejected the report’s conclusions as false. For one thing, the authors do not account for the additional jobs and state spending that will come with increased revenue to the state, Brena said.)
Best said that in his view, the Native corporations offer “a pretty compelling voice.”
“They seem like they’ll do what’s in the best interest of their members," Best said.
“I came in thinking, ‘Yes, let’s tax the oil companies’” to counteract state budget cuts, Best said.
“Now, I’m not as certain.”