Superior Court Judge William Morse ruled this week that Republican Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer, who’s tasked with impartially overseeing Alaska’s elections, engaged in partisan politics when he prepared a summary of an oil tax initiative that backers say was unfairly skewed.
The Fair Share Act backers brought a lawsuit against the Meyer, who worked for ConocoPhillips for nearly 40 years before retiring after his 2018 election with Gov. Mike Dunleavy, and the Division of Elections over the summary the state had prepared for the Fair Share Act initiative, which proposes to raise taxes on large legacy oil fields.
The core of the dispute revolves around a provision in the initiative that would make oil company tax filings a public record. The summary prepared by Meyer claims the filings would be available to the public through the normal Public Records Act process while initiative backers said the intent was to simply state that the records would be a public record.
Judge Morse acknowledges that the true impact of the initiative is not entirely known but that matter before the court is the summary and not how the initiative will eventually be applied. Instead, he focuses on the summary attached to initiative that reads “This would mean the normal Public Records Act process would apply.”
Morse says that issue is far from settled and the summary intentionally presents voters with an incorrect and skewed idea of what the Fair Share Act would do.
“By telling the public that section 7 would not only make all filings and supporting documents a ‘matter of public record,’ but also that ‘this would mean the normal Public Records Act process would apply,’ Meyer weighs in on the dispute over the meaning of section 7. He does not reveal that there is a dispute over the meaning of a ‘matter of public record.’ He does not indicated that it is unclear whether the exceptions to disclosure of public records, contained in AS 40.25.120, might apply to some of the producers’ filings,” writes Morse. “Instead, he places his finger on the scales and affirmatively states that section 7 does not mean or accomplish what its sponsors say was their intent or would be the effect of the initiative.”
Morse continues with a harsh reprimand of Meyer, who’s charged with impartially administering the state’s elections.
“This affirmative resolution of the dispute over its meaning is not an impartial summary of section 7,” Morse wrote. “By siding with the possibility of confidentiality Meyer has in engaged in partisan suasion. That is improper.”
Meyer was among two state senators employed by oil companies who drew criticism for voting in favor of oil tax cuts in 2013’s Senate Bill 21. Meyer continued to work for ConocoPhillips as a supply chain coordinator until he was elected as lieutenant governor in 2018. He had worked for the company for 39 years.
The ruling orders the state to delete the sentence in question.
Robin Brena, the chief backer of the initiative and long-time legal opponent of the oil companies, was livid on the day his group picked up their petition booklets last year and pointed out several places where the language on the petition seemed to be intentionally confusing.
“That’s ridiculous,” he said when looking at the public records section. “Obviously, the administration used this as an opportunity to raise talking points against the Fair Share Act that they couldn’t find enough wrong with to deny its way to the ballot. They chose instead to speculate on constitutional issues that they ultimately did not opine on and to interpret the law so as to twist the human language out of all recognition.”
On Wednesday, Brena said it’s an unfortunate situation for the lieutenant governor to be accused of failing to uphold his duty to oversee fair and impartial elections but that he was pleased with the outcome.
“It is unfortunate we had to bring suit against Lieutenant Governor Meyer to get him to fulfill his duty to provide a true and impartial summary of the Fair Share Act,” Brena said in a prepared statement. “That said, we are pleased Judge Morse has thoughtfully reviewed this issue and issued a clear ruling permitting Alaskan voters to have a truly impartial summary on the November ballot. This is not the first nor will it be the last roadblock by people opposed to the Fair Share Act. We hope all Alaskans will support Alaska’s future by helping Alaskans get a transparent and fair share of our oil in this time of great need.”
The case could be appealed by the state to the Alaska Supreme Court. Additionally, the Alaska Resource Development Council has challenged the legality of the initiative in a separate lawsuit.
The Fair Share Act already faces a substantial multimillion-dollar opposition campaign funded in large part by the oil companies, including Meyer’s former employer.