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New poll: Alaskans support Gov. Walker's plan to close budget gap

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: July 15, 2016
  • Published January 29, 2016

A new poll by Alaska Dispatch News shows majority support for Gov. Bill Walker's plan to close the state's budget gap — though the proposal, which would reduce Alaskans' dividend checks, is opposed by Republicans and comes amid a drop in Walker's approval rating.

An overwhelming proportion of respondents — 93 percent — said it was either very important or somewhat important to enact a plan like Walker's to address the state's budget shortfall, a result which one lawmaker, Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, called "astonishing."

Among Republicans, however, 58 percent oppose Walker's plan, which would reduce Permanent Fund dividends and levy a small income tax, compared to 35 percent who support it — which is perhaps one explanation for the skepticism expressed by many of the Republicans who control the state Legislature. Even so, 71 percent of GOP poll respondents said it was very important that lawmakers enact a plan of the same sort as Walker's, and another 22 percent said it was somewhat important.

The poll, conducted by Ivan Moore Research, had a 3.8 percent margin of error — meaning that at the time the poll was conducted, it is nearly certain that the results are within 3.8 percent of the true proportion of opinions held by Alaskans.

“There (are) some things in the governor’s plan that Republicans in general don’t like,” Kevin Meyer, the Senate president and an Anchorage Republican, said in an interview after he reviewed the poll. “But I think they all expect us to do something this session.”

Moore, a liberal-leaning pollster who was paid by Walker’s campaign for public opinion surveys, said the results show a thaw in public opinion when it comes to using some of the Permanent Fund’s earnings to fund government, even among Republicans.

“I don’t think there’s anything in these numbers that says to any legislator, ‘I’m not touching this with a barge pole.’ This was once the third rail of Alaskan politics,” Moore said. Referring to Walker, he added: “The majority of Alaskans support what he has proposed — and if that’s a third-rail electrocution, then the current isn’t very strong.”

The poll, conducted in the second week of January, is the latest in a series of surveys of Alaskans’ ideas about solutions to the state’s financial crisis — though entities that commissioned the other two surveys, the Rasmuson Foundation and a group called Alaska’s Future, are also pushing lawmakers to take specific actions in response.

The state currently has a $5.4 billion budget with a $3.8 billion deficit, a situation brought on largely by a crash in oil prices and declining production. Until last year, taxes and royalties from North Slope oil production accounted for nearly 90 percent of state revenue.

Walker wants to close the gap with a plan that relies primarily on converting the Permanent Fund into an endowment-like account, capturing oil revenue and discharging a steady stream of investment returns to help pay for government.

The plan also relies on a small proposed income tax to raise $200 million, and cuts to the state’s operating budget of about $100 million, or 2.5 percent, on top of 9 percent cuts put in place this year.

Republican lawmakers have said they want to focus this year’s budget process on seeking deeper cuts, though they’ve acknowledged recently they’ll also need to create new sources of revenue.

In the recent poll by Alaska’s Future, a group spearheaded by GCI president Ron Duncan, 59 percent of respondents said they supported using some Permanent Fund earnings as part of a package to address the budget shortfall, compared to 37 percent who were opposed.

In the Rasmuson poll, 51 percent were supportive and 43 percent were opposed to using a portion of fund earnings to pay for public services, though the question in that survey included an explicit caveat that Alaskans’ dividends would be reduced.

And 83 percent of Rasmuson’s respondents said they were less likely to support legislators who take no action to fix the budget crisis.

The results of all the polls, said Gardner, show that “the efforts made to alert Alaskans to this problem have born fruit.”

“There are people who want to encourage legislators to act now,” she said.

Dianne Woodruff, 54, was one of the Alaska Dispatch News poll’s respondents who said she strongly supports Walker’s plan. She said the state needs to “continue to try to tighten the belt however we can — but we also need to do something else.”

The governor’s proposal, she added, “tells me Walker’s the adult in the room, and I’m willing to give him a shot to see what he can do.

“The Legislature, including those that have been in place for a really long time and helped create this mess, still don’t get the message,” said Woodruff, an accountant in Wasilla.

Seward resident Larry Johnson, 70, was strongly opposed to Walker’s plan. In a phone interview after the poll, he said lawmakers still need to cut the state’s budget more deeply.

“I just don’t think we’re there yet,” said Johnson, a retiree who did commercial fishing and construction.

Johnson said he completely understands that the state can’t cut enough to balance its budget. But reductions, he added, are “the first part of the two equations.” If his representative, GOP House Speaker Mike Chenault, voted for a plan like Walker’s before further budget cuts, “then I would look for somebody else to the fiscal right of him,” Johnson said.

Asked about the survey results, one of the members of the House majority’s Republican leadership, Anchorage Rep. Craig Johnson, said his decisions on the state’s budget crisis would be “based upon the facts as they are in committees.”

“I will not be anywhere based on a poll,” he said.

He dismissed the poll’s data on Walker’s fiscal plan, saying one of the questions was misleading and painted the proposal in a favorable light. He and a staff member noted that the question refers to the package as “continuing to reduce government spending” and stabilizing dividends at “about $1,000.”

“Go back and read that question in the context of reality,” Johnson said. “There are no cuts.”

While Walker’s plan would cut $100 million from the state’s agency operating budget, the state’s total spending for next year would, in fact, increase by 1.2 percent. And the plan only guarantees dividends at $1,000 for one year; without that guarantee, dividends could be $500 or lower and would remain low unless oil prices rise, a top Walker administration official acknowledged in a legislative hearing Thursday.

The poll, and a previous quarterly survey conducted by Moore in September, before the release of Walker’s financial plan, also showed the governor largely maintained the positive view that about half of respondents hold of him. That number dropped by just three points in the more recent survey, from 51 percent to 48 percent.

But the results did show Walker’s negative rating nearly doubling, to 23 percent from 13 percent, while the number of respondents who didn’t recognize Walker’s name dropped by a corresponding 10 points, to 8 percent from 18 percent.

Asked about the results, Walker, in a prepared statement, focused on data showing overwhelming support for passage of a financial plan like his.

“As this poll and others have shown, Alaskans recognize the importance of passing a complete and sustainable fiscal package,” the statement quoted him as saying.

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