Some 70 Alaskans hoping to repeal an oil-tax cut passed during this year's legislative session gathered in a sparsely populated area of the state's largest city Saturday to celebrate the collection of more than 50,000 signatures, apparently far more than the number needed to put the question before Alaska voters in next August's primary election.
Democratic state Sen. Bill Wielechowski asked the crowd, "Are we going to let Parnell give away billions in oil tax revenue?"
"No," the crowd shouted back.
Repeal measure could be on ballot next August
Alaska politicians, signature gatherers and supporters of the repeal gathered in a circle on Ship Creek Avenue in Alaska's largest city. Just a few blocks away, thousands were enjoying a sunny weekend at Anchorage's Saturday Market. Although the Ship Creek group was largely out of public view, the mood was jubilant. They laughed, shared stories, and discussed the uncertainty of Alaska's economic future.
Supporters of "Vote Yes -- Repeal the Giveaway" held boastful picket signs. "50,000 Alaskans are probably right," one sign read. "THE OWNER STATE in action," a term coined by former Gov. Wally Hickel, was scribbled in black marker on another.
Although prominent politicians from Alaska's minority party addressed the crowd, people who simply signed their names showed up, too. Mercer Welsh, who has lived in the state for five years but feels he's not quite an Alaskan yet, said that when he moved here, the price of gas puzzled him. He began digging and got involved in local grassroots movements. To Mercer, who held a picket sign that read "I support a bipartisan senate with a backbone," Senate Bill 21 is unnecessary.
"(The oil companies) know they have a good thing here, so they're just trying to play hardball," he said.
If the Vote Yes referendum passes muster, Alaska voters will have the chance next year to repeal a tax break that many believe will cut oil companies' tax bill as much as $1 billion a year. BP, Exxon Mobil Corp. and ConocoPhillips would be the biggest beneficiaries of the tax cut.
"I think the referendum will help," Mercer said. "I think it will put the decision to the people, and I think they'll decide not to accept this tax cut."
Beyond our wildest expectations
"Vote Yes – Repeal the Giveaway" initially aimed to get 40,000 names in their booklets. They needed 30,169 signatures from election districts across Alaska to get their initiative on the 2014 primary ballot.
Organizers wanted a large buffer to protect against people who sign more than once or who are not registered voters but signed anyway. Earlier this week, the group wasn't sure so many booklets from across the state would come back filled with signatures, said Pat Lavin, organizer of Vote Yes.
According to the group's count, it collected about 51,000 signatures. Many of them were mailed to Vote Yes during the past week, flooding the group with thousands more than expected.
"We thought 40,000 would be the high bar to reach," Lavin said. "That would've been very successful … The amount of signatures we got was beyond our wildest expectations."
And the group collected them in just three months; initiatives typically have an entire year to collect signatures.
About 1,300 signature booklets were sent statewide, and the group got about 900 back, Lavin said. A full booklet contains 150 signatures, but not all of the returned booklets were full. Regardless, Lavin said support came from every corner of the state.
"There's nowhere in Alaska that SB21 is good for, so we expected a good dispersion," he said.
Second battle for statehood
With microphone in hand, Lavin announced the number of signatures to supporters Saturday afternoon. He also mentioned the uphill battle the group fought since the Alaska Legislature passed SB21 some 90 days ago.
The crowd booed at mention of the bill's passage.
Jack Roderick, mayor of the former Greater Anchorage Area Borough and author of the book "Crude Dreams" about Alaska's oil history, addressed the crowd next. He thanked volunteers for their efforts but said the signatures were a small part of a longer battle.
"It's going to be tough," he said, "but it's worth doing."
Outside interests can hurt development, he continued. Alaska's politicians should stand up to the oil companies and flex their political muscle to control "our" development, he said.
Despite a crowd filled with Democrats, Roderick argued that the referendum is a bi-partisan issue.
Wielechowski, the last public figure to speak, made an effort to excite the crowd. He shrugged his shoulders and contemplated why the group had been sent to the outskirts of Alaska's largest city. The state Division of Election's main office is located on Gambell Street just south of downtown Anchorage.
He said it's because Parnell knows the repeal will pass in the primary.
Alaska can't afford to give away billions in oil revenues and he called Vote Yes's efforts the "second battle for statehood."
He finished his speech by leading the crowd in an "It's our oil," chant.
A chorus line
After the speeches, a dozen or so members of the group volunteered to haul the load of signature booklets to the third floor of a non-descript administrative building across the street from the gathering.
A piece of white paper was taped to the building's elevator door. "State of Alaska Division of Elections is located on the third floor in suite 329," it said.
The devoted group crowded onto the third floor, and as it approached the Division of Elections office, some people began to sing Alaska's state song, "Alaska's Flag." Then the boxes were handed over to division administrators.
The job of counting and verifying the signatures belongs to the Division of Elections. Each signature will be entered into a database, and a computer will run the data through the state's voter registration system, said division Director Gail Fenumiai.
If a signer's info matches what's in the state system, the signature automatically qualifies. Those that don't match require further research, she said. This can happen for a number of reasons: someone writing an incorrect digit in their social security number, or someone signing with a slightly different name than their voter registration name.
"That's about it," Fenumiai said. "But it's a very time- consuming process, with thousands and thousands of names entered into the system."
Generally, a few thousand signatures are thrown out.
In 2011, when groups were again pushing for and against a state coastal zone management program, about 3,500 signatures out of 33,575 were tossed out.
The division will review the signatures and either certify or deny the petition within 60 days.
Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com