Alaska superior court judge orders state to correct its summary of the oil-tax initiative

Anchorage attorney Robin Brena sits at a meeting of the citizens initiative campaign to raise taxes on Alaska’s largest oil producers on Thursday, January 16, 2020. (Photo by Nat Herz / Alaska’s Energy Desk)

An Alaska superior court judge has ruled this week that the state must correct part of its summary for a ballot initiative that would raise taxes on the state’s largest oil fields. 

Judge William Morse sided with the backers of the initiative and wrote in an 18-page order that the summary provided by Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer was not impartial, as required by state law. Morse ordered that Meyer delete the problematic sentence from the summary.

That sentence had to do with oil producers’ tax filings for the state’s three largest oil fields: Prudhoe Bay, Kuparuk and Alpine.  

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The group backing the initiative, often referred to as Ballot Measure 1, says it wants tax filings made public so Alaskans can see producers’ profits, revenues and costs for the fields.

Meyer’s summary of the initiative says — if it became law — the filings would be subject to the state’s normal public records act process. The initiative’s backers objected to that description. They say it’s not the same because the state could decide to keep some of the information confidential through the process. 

In his order, Morse said that for now the most important goal is to allow the initiative’s backers to present their vision of transparency and taxation to the voters. He said Meyer placed “his finger on the scales” when he stated the provision did not mean what its backers say they intended. 

“By siding with the possibility of confidentiality Meyer has engaged in partisan suasion,” Morse said. “That is improper.” 

In a statement Wednesday, the Alaska Department of Law said it was disappointed the court “failed to see the straightforward accuracy” of the sentence. 

“It is the State’s position that whether any information would ultimately be withheld under another existing exception or under the privacy clause of the Alaska Constitution are questions for implementation and not addressed in the summary one way or the other,” the statement said. 

Initiative chair Robin Brena said in a statement that it was unfortunate the group had to bring a lawsuit to get Meyer “to fulfill his duty to provide a true and impartial summary” of the initiative. 

The initiative will appear on the Nov. 3 general election ballot. The initiative group is also facing a lawsuit from industry trade groups.

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