Poll: More Alaskans are worried about the budget, and more are open to taxes

BETHEL — Alaskans are growing increasingly concerned about the state budget crisis that threatens jobs, government services and Permanent Fund dividends, a new Rasmuson Foundation poll says.

Alaskans also seem to be warming to the idea of an income tax and are surprisingly open to the idea of a sales tax, with almost two-thirds at least leaning toward that possibility, the survey showed.

And while rural and Alaska Native residents are far less alarmed than people generally, concerns among those groups also are increasing, according to the Rasmuson telephone poll conducted March 23 through March 29. Of 801 Alaskans surveyed, two-thirds were on landlines and the rest on cellphones. The poll's margin of error was 3.5 percent.

Diane Kaplan, Rasmuson president and chief executive, presented the results in Bethel Wednesday to the community and to the annual tribal gathering of Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp.

"I am confident when I say this. He will not let them go home unless they fix this issue," Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott told about 50 community members gathered Wednesday on the Kuskokwim campus of University of Alaska.

Mallott was on a panel that included former Wells Fargo banker Lisa Wimmel and former federal natural gas pipeline coordinator Larry Persily.

Persily said legislative fixes would restructure the Permanent Fund so some of its earnings can help pay for government, meaning lower dividends of about $1,000 or less at least for the next few years.

"I know it sounds like a political crock but the truth is we have got to do something to help save the dividend," said Persily, a former deputy revenue commissioner who now works for the Kenai Peninsula Borough. "Because if we do nothing, it really is at risk."

Wimmer joked that lawmakers may need their own copies of "Profiles in Courage," the John F. Kennedy book about acts of integrity and bravery by eight U.S. senators throughout history.

Walker's plan is in pencil because he wants to adapt the solution to reflect what Alaskans want, Mallott said. Rasmuson is urging Alaskans to come up with their favored fix using an online budget tool at Plan4Alaska.com. Those plans can then be sent to legislators, Kaplan said.

Rasmuson has been researching public opinion and Kaplan has been making presentations around the state for months to educate Alaskans on the severity of the state government budget gap.

More than three-quarters of those polled said they were fairly or extremely concerned about the budget shortfall while about half of Alaska Natives said they were concerned — a significant difference in perspectives, according to Rasmuson.

The proportion of Alaskans "extremely concerned" is escalating. In July it was 31 percent, in January 43 percent and the March poll put it at 49 percent, just under half of Alaskans. Concern also is growing among Natives, just more slowly, the poll found.

The poll tested whether views changed once people had more information. When residents were told the state budget is about $5 billion and revenues are at least $3.8 billion short, they grew more concerned. Natives in particular reacted, with the percentage of those concerned increasing from 52 percent to 74 percent once they had a little more information.

Bush residents just don't have instant access to information the way urban Alaskans or even those in hubs like Bethel do, said Susan Murphy, president of the Lower Kuskokwim School Board and a member of Bethel's tribe. She said she logs onto an Anchorage news source every day, but not everyone can do that.

"We are so caught up in springtime activities and Cama-i (dance festival) and meetings, we are not paying as much attention to the budget crisis as we should be," she said.

Two-thirds of residents supported a solution that combined taxes with cuts, compared to 55 percent if only the views of Natives were considered, Rasmuson's March poll found.

Only one-fourth of Alaskans rate the state's economy as good or excellent, a drop from 37 percent in July, Kaplan said. Half think the situation will only get worse over the next year.

"So confidence in the economy and the economic outlook have dropped to an all-time low," Kaplan said.

When asked an open-ended question about the top issues before Walker and the Legislature, a clear majority of Alaskans — 57 percent — named the state budget and the prospect of taxes. The budget and taxes were the top concern of 31 percent of Native residents canvassed.

As to taxes, fewer than half of Alaskans, or 47 percent, support an income tax generally, but that's more than the 41 percent open to an income tax as of July.

And if a tax structure that is similar to what Walker has proposed is explained in detail, more than half are on board. Under that system, the tax amount would be tied to how much federal income tax someone paid. The poll referred to it as a flat tax of 1.5 percent but when asked about that, Kaplan said it would actually be a progressive tax. Those surveyed were told that low-income people would pay no income tax. They also were told that it was estimated that 80 percent of the tax would be collected from the wealthiest 20 percent.

Once Native residents were given the additional information, 60 percent said they could support or were open to an income tax.

After the presentation, Mike Hoffman, executive vice president of the Association of Village Council Presidents, said the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta group would work to get information about the budget crisis and proposed solutions to its 48 villages.

Elimination of the Permanent Fund dividend would devastate a region where many rely on it to buy gasoline for boats, four-wheelers and snowmachines and stove oil for heating homes, he said.

The North Slope Borough has oil wealth and the Kotzebue region has Red Dog Mine but the Kuskokwim area has struggling salmon runs and high rates of poverty, unemployment and suicide, he said.

"There's a difference. Out here, we truly have a need to conserve everything we have," Hoffman said. "This permanent dividend, for them to cap it or cut it, that's a lot for a region that doesn't have what everyone else has."