Industry trade groups sue backers of Alaska oil tax initiative, argue signatures invalid

Supporters of the initiative to raise oil taxes pose for a photo on Jan. 16, 2020. From left to right: Les Gara,
Jane Angvik, Robin Brena, David Carter and Harry Crawford. (Nat Herz/Alaska Public Media)

The Alaska Chamber and five other industry trade groups are suing state election officials and the backers of a ballot initiative that would raise taxes on the state’s largest oil fields. 

The groups claim that many of the signatures gathered to get the initiative on a statewide ballot are invalid, according to a nine-page complaint filed in Superior Court in Anchorage on Friday. Under state law, signature gatherers cannot be paid more than $1 per name. And the complaint alleges that some people working to collect signatures for the oil tax initiative were paid more than that. 

“It looks like these ballot sponsors cut corners to try to gather sufficient signatures,” said Matt Singer, an attorney with the firm Holland & Knight who is representing the trade groups.

But the group backing the initiative, Vote Yes for Alaska’s Fair Share, ardently denies the allegations. Robin Brena, chairman of the group and a long-time oil and gas attorney, described the lawsuit as “baseless,” “ridiculous” and based on a theory that’s wrong.

“There’s no violation of the law. They don’t understand the law. They’re misquoting it,” Brena said. “They have their facts wrong.”

Last month, Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer notified Brena that their petition was properly filed and they had gathered enough qualifying signatures to get on a statewide ballot. The division verified nearly 40,000 voter signatures from across Alaska, exceeding the necessary 28,501, said the letter from Meyer.

Related: Alaska oil tax initiative has enough valid signatures to appear on ballot, election officials say

The complaint says Vote Yes for Alaska’s Fair Share hired Advanced Micro Targeting in Las Vegas to help collect many of those signatures. 

The out-of-state company advertised that “it would pay signature gatherers $3,500 – $4,000 per month plus bonus, and that it expected 80-100 signatures per day, six days per week in return for such compensation,” according to the complaint.

“We’re asking the court to give us the opportunity to complete discovery on this issue,” Singer said. The trade groups are asking the court to throw out all signatures collected by people paid more than $1 a name.

Brena said the company did not pay signature gatherers on a per-name basis. 

“This is just, I think, a sign of desperation by companies that don’t want Alaskans to have a voice in this matter,” he said.

The oil tax initiative would raise the minimum tax and eliminate oil tax credits for Alaska’s largest legacy fields: Prudhoe Bay, Kuparuk and Alpine. It would also require oil companies to publicly report their revenues and costs from those fields. 

The five other trade groups filing the lawsuit are the Resource Development Council for Alaska, Alaska Trucking Association, Alaska Miners Association, Associated General Contractors of Alaska and the Alaska Support Industry Alliance.

Rebecca Logan, chief executive of the Alaska Support Industry Alliance, an oil and mining trade group, addresses the crowd at a OneAlaska rally on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, at Delta Constructors in Anchorage. OneAlaska was formed to fight the oil tax initiative. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

The other defendants named in the suit are Meyer, the state division of elections and its director. 

The state Department of Law declined to comment on the lawsuit on Monday, and said in a statement it will reserve its comments for the documents it files in court. The oil tax initiative will likely appear on the general election ballot in November, the department said.

The group OneAlaska was formed last year to oppose the initiative. It had raised more than $3.5 million by early April, much of it from ExxonMobil, BP, ConocoPhillips and Hilcorp, according to a report filed with the Alaska Public Offices Commission.

Meanwhile, Vote Yes for Alaska’s Fair Share reported raising nearly $200,000, much of it from Brena himself. 

Reach reporter Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8447.