Supreme Court rejects biased state-prepared summary of oil tax initiative

(Screenshot from Gavel Alaska)

The Alaska Supreme Court in a ruling Wednesday has upheld a lower court’s ruling that found the summary prepared by the Division of Elections was politically biased and must be rewritten.

The case centered around the state-prepared summary of Ballot Measure 1, which seeks to raise taxes on large legacy oil fields in Alaska and implement new disclosure rules. Robin Brena, the attorney behind the measure, has argued the state and Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer, a former oil company employee, had intentionally injected ambiguity into the measure.

Brena had raised several issues with the initial summary prepared by the state—including one that would suggest that the measure would only apply to fields that have produced 400,000 million barrels (the initiative says 400 million barrels)—but the last lingering issue revolves around a line calling for the disclosure of tax filings.

The measure says tax filings and supporting documents will become “matter of public record,” but just what that will mean in practice is not spelled out by the initiative and has become a matter of disagreement between the initiative’s backers and the state. The summary prepared by Meyer and the Division of Elections didn’t acknowledge the disagreement and, instead, suggested there might be exemptions that would allow companies to keep their filings secret.

The June ruling by Superior Court Judge William Morse chided Meyer for the action, arguing that he had “engaged in partisan suasion” by placing “his finger on the scales and affirmatively (stating) that section 7 does not mean or accomplish what its sponsors say was their intent.”

In a bit of compromise, the Supreme Court’s ruling approved the following revision to the summary: “The act does not specify the process for disclosure of the public records.” A full ruling explaining the court’s reasoning is expected at a later date.

Brena, who’s been behind some of the biggest lawsuits against the oil companies, celebrated Wednesday’s win with the following statement:

“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, but this is a victory for the voters. Today the Supreme Court upheld their right to an unbiased ballot summary. We are confident that as voters get the facts, they will vote yes for Alaska’s Fair Share.”

One more lawsuit

The Fair Share Act has a second lawsuit in front of the Alaska Supreme Court. This one is brought by the Resource Development Council against the state and the initiative’s backers that focuses on the salaries paid to the signature gatherers. It argues that because the signature gatherers were paid, in effect, excess of the $1 per signature limit set in state law that the measure should be removed from the ballot altogether.

The case was dismissed earlier this year by Superior Court Judge Thomas Matthews, who found that the limit was an unconstitutional limit of free speech and that the proposed remedy—of removing the initiative from the ballot—is unacceptable.

“Such a remedy is anything but narrowly tailored,” Matthews wrote. “Instead, the statute disregards the rights of voters with the justification of a technical error—something that cuts deeply into the constitutional rights of Alaskans when there are other ways to ensure the veracity and integrity of the process. … Why should voters be disenfranchised because a circulator fails to meet technical statutory requirements.”

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on that challenge earlier this week.

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