Dozens of campaign advertisements were born today; the result of a press conference after Senator Mark Begich (D-Alaska) addressed the state legislature in Juneau.
The moment occurred when Juneau Empire’s Matt Woolbright asked the freshman senator for his position on SB21 — Governor Parnell’s landmark legislation passed last year aimed at reforming the state’s oil tax structure. The “More Alaska Production” (MAP) Act, as the Parnell administration refers to it, replaced Alaska’s Clear and Equitable Share Act (ACES), put in place by Governor Palin with the help of Democrats in the legislature.
The fight between the old and new tax structures has been largely fought along partisan lines. While the governor calls the new tax system “the Alaska Comeback,” Democrats cast a more dire image of the revenue collected by oil taxes leaving the state, with all of us left begging the cash flow to “come back!” Parnell’s tax plan could result in oil tax revenue declining by billions.
State Democrats would very much like to point that out in the coming midterm elections, which will decide (yet again) a large swath of the state legislature as well as who will sit in the governor’s chair. It’s already the central fixture of the coming campaigns, with the party asking voters to “repeal the giveaway.”
Representative Les Gara and Senators Bill Wielechowski and Hollis French (all D-Anchorage) have introduced new legislation as a suggested fix to said giveaway. “The SB21 giveaway is not working,” French said, in a press release announcing their alternative. “So we’re letting Alaskans know there’s a better way than the giveaway.”
Even more colorfully, Rep. Gara offered: “The Governor’s giveaway is a pathway to poverty…. He throws two billion dollars out of an airplane and hopes it lands in the piggy bank.”
In order to accomplish this all, however, they’ll need a lot more supportive colleagues with votes in the Capitol. And, with that, the Democrats have a party platform, a cogent message, and a campaign strategy.
None of which works if the repeal fails.
Last month offered encouraging news, when a left-leaning Public Policy Poll showed Alaskans favoring repeal of SB21 by a 43-32 margin. The oil companies, who stand to gain from Parnell’s tax regime, responded (as they tend to do) with a lot of money, thus far to the tune of $3.5 million.
At today’s presser, reporters were offered a unique chance to ask the ranking Democrat in the state whether or not he supported SB21 or its repeal.
“I’m not going to go down that path with you,” Begich responded, flatly. He then offered vaguely tangential anecdotes about how industry (“who supports me very strongly,” he added) needs certainty. Which structure he believes would provide the appropriate stability, however, was not specified.
Later in the day, House Speaker Mike Chenault (R-Nikiski) offered a response. “I would hope the senator realizes that that is exactly what SB21 provides, that certainty,” Chenault said in a press release. “Changing the system again would lead to uncertainty.”
Of course, he’s right. Though, in fairness, upending the existing framework of ACES disrupted certainty too. Plus, “certainty” can mean bad things too. As Alaska Dispatch’s Pat Forgey wrote at the time of the bill’s passing: “Gov. Sean Parnell Tuesday signed an oil tax cut bill that will guarantee budget deficits for years to come at projected oil price and production levels, and then praised himself and legislative leaders for showing fiscal restraint.”
That’s a description of certainty too. Really crappy certainty.
But Senator Begich just gave Republicans an escape route when pestered about the details of SB21’s negative financial implications: “If the Democrats’ plan is so good, why doesn’t Senator Begich support it?”
As if two of the last three Democratic governors’ opposition to the repeal effort wasn’t damaging enough, what Begich said today completely undermines an entire year of populist messaging. Look for it to be featured (any second now) on campaign literature, radio and television spots, and candidate forums everywhere. It will be repeated a thousand times, from here to August, to remind voters that there is no “certainty” within the party that seemed so certain about the repeal up to this point, when all of a sudden they’re totally not.
Democrats had best get to work now on a good answer for that one, though I’m coming up a bit short having the slightest idea where they should start. “He can’t piss off the oil companies in an election year” probably won’t afford them the cover they’re looking for, however true the claim might be. And using politics-by-numbers language like “this is bigger than parties” can easily be undone by the reminder that “so is the opposition.”
If the repeal effort is shot down, the next step will be to use it against Begich, who’s up for reelection in November. Prepare for an ocean of claims that he flip-flopped, despite the reality that he neither flipped, nor flopped; just kind of teetered.