JUNEAU, Alaska - With elections that will decide the makeup of Alaska's Senate less than two months away, the ads have already started, and groups are weighing in on an issue that's overshadowed all others in recent sessions at the state Capitol: oil taxes.
Republicans leaders, including the state GOP chairman and governor, have made breaking up the Senate's bipartisan coalition a priority. Leaders of the coalition last year refused to follow the lead of the GOP-led House and take up Gov. Sean Parnell's oil tax-cut plan, saying they didn't have the information they needed at the time to make a good policy call.
Critics labeled the plan a giveaway with no guarantees that oil companies would invest more here. Parnell has seen cutting taxes as a way to boost investment and production.
Efforts to change the tax structure this year failed during both regular and special legislative sessions.
On Tuesday, a group that includes businesses, organ izations, Alaska Native corporations and individuals seeking changes in Alaska's oil tax structure held a news conference in Anchorage to discuss its role in this year's elections. The Make Alaska Competitive Coalition is one of several groups wading into the fight, along with the likes of the support industry-backed We Are Alaska and the Putting Alaskans First Committee, which has union support.
Former Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat, and former state House speaker Gail Phillips, a Republican, were among those representing the group at Tuesday's event. Supporters said they weren't advocating a specific oil tax plan, but said a change in the current structure is important to helping stem the decline in oil production and better securing Alaska's economic future.
The state relies heavily on oil revenues to run, but production has been declining. Higher prices in recent years have helped to mask the impact. While lawmakers in both parties say they want to see more oil in the trans-Alaska pipeline, there's disagreement on how best to get there.
The group does not plan to get into the fight over the Senate coalition; Knowles spoke of working across party and geographic lines to achieve the goal of "meaningful" tax change, and negotiating with oil companies - but taking a trust-but-verify approach and ensuring Alaska gets its "fair share."
The Make Alaska Competitive Coalition has a fundraising goal of between $300,000 and $500,000. A radio ad, played for reporters Tuesday and also on the group's website, urges Alaskans to "vote for oil tax reform."
Rebecca Logan, chairwoman of We Are Alaska and general manager of The Alaska Support Industry Alliance, said she doesn't know that she'd say her group's focus is on oil taxes but rather it's on increased production. We Are Alaska, which Logan said is so far solely funded by the Alliance, says in its group registration form that it "intends to promote responsible development of Alaska's oil, g as and mining resources by providing the public with relevant information regarding initiatives and candidates for state office."
Logan said the group is running radio ads in Anchorage and Fairbanks, introducing listeners in part to the role the support industry plays in the economy. She wasn't sure what role the group would play in the elections, calling that a "developing piece."
Vince Beltrami, chair of the Putting Alaskans First Committee and president of the Alaska AFL-CIO, said the goal of groups like We Are Alaska is to win a big tax cut. He said that while adjustments could be made to the existing tax structure, nothing on the order of what Parnell has proposed is necessary. He said his group has adopted the mantra "No Reduction Without Production," the idea being that taxes shouldn't be cut without commitments from oil companies for greater oil production.
Putting Alaskans First is running TV ads, he said, and will be advocating for members of the Senate's coalition.
"I don't think there's anything more important to guarantee that Alaska gets its fair share than maintaining that coalition," he said.