One of this election year's most complicated and pivotal issues readily filled the room at the Loussac Library's Wilda Marston Theatre in Anchorage Wednesday night, for a debate on the future of oil tax law Senate Bill 21.
In one corner, state Sen. Bill Wielechowski (D-Anchorage) and economist Gregg Erickson argued in favor of Ballot Measure 1, which if passed would repeal Gov. Sean Parnell's slate of reduced oil taxes under SB21. The 2013 bill superseded former Gov. Sarah Palin's plan, Alaska's Clear and Equitable Share, an oil production tax passed by the state Legislature in 2007.
“Under SB21 the oil companies get the biggest share, a much larger share of that increment,” Erickson said at the debate.
In the other corner, oil and gas consultant Brad Keithley and petroleum economist Roger Marks argued for keeping the new oil tax system in place with a no vote on Ballot Measure 1.
“SB21 was propagated by one single big problem with ACES, and the problem was the structure accredited very high tax rates and high prices,” Marks said.
Arguably ACES' most divisive feature was its progressive oil tax rates,, which increased the state's oil tax rate when the market price of oil rose. In times of high oil prices, the state could afford lucrative subsidies such as 2008's $1,200 "resource rebate" to every Alaskan, championed by Palin to offset residents' correspondingly high energy costs.
In contrast, SB21 features a flat tax rate of 35 percent, which detractors say could cost the state billions of dollars -- but oil companies say is more fair and encourages more investment.
Wielechowski says the current tax system in place is an oil giveaway. He questions why the state would move away from a system he says was already working.
“When we had ACES we had all-time highs -- investment all-time highs and jobs all-time highs, and the number of companies coming to Alaska," Wielechowski said. "The state (was) making billions in revenue and the oil companies, industry, made over 40 billion dollars in profits; rates of return were 100 percent."
But Keithley says SB21 will help rejuvenate Alaska’s declining oil industry, calling it an investment that will translate to an increase in oil production.
“If you look at worldwide investment levels over the last few years, they’ve risen tremendously under ACES; we’ve stayed flat. In fact, we’ve declined some,” Keithley said. “SB21 is a response to that, to try and increase the amount of investment that’s coming in the state.”
Ballot Measure 1 will be voted on during the state's Aug. 19 primary elections.
Wednesday’s forum was the first of four discussions hosted by Alaska Common Ground on ballot initiatives and referendums before Alaskans this year. The next forum, on July 30, will discussing an initiative raising Alaska's minimum wage.