Begich just can't bring himself to say he backs a state income tax

The Anchorage Daily News has a column by Charles Wohlforth in which he says that his friend, former Sen. Mark Begich, nearly dropped out of the governor’s race, but decided to stay in it and speak from the heart.

“Begich is having fun. He is enjoying channeling the values of liberal Alaskans who usually have to compromise when they vote,” Wohlforth says.

Wohlforth says “Begich is speaking a new language, one that hasn't been heard much from mainstream statewide campaigns in Alaska: Attacking a Republican president, supporting Proposition 1 to protect salmon habitat, and emphasizing support for the working poor.”

It is probably true that Begich is speaking from the heart about the stable genius. There is no trick to that and no political risk. It is easy to talk about the damage President Trump has done to the country.

But Begich is not speaking from the heart about taxes in Alaska. I have no doubt he favors an income tax, but he won’t say so.

“Will we need revenues? Yes. What will that look like? We need 11 senators and 21 House members. That is the task and right now you don’t have that mix,” Begich said on the public radio show “Talk of Alaska” Tuesday.

He seems to be unaware of the progress made over the last couple of years in advancing the public discussion of the state’s fiscal problem. A lot of the credit for that progress goes to Gov. Bill Walker, and the coalition of Democrats and Republicans who led the House.

Begich criticized the income tax approved 22-17 by the House a year ago as regressive, complaining that it would only have applied to wage earners and that the gas tax would have hurt people in rural Alaska.

The state Senate blocked progress on any taxes and its leaders staked out a position favoring dividend cuts and nothing else. A year ago, Senate President Pete Kelly famously said it is a “foundational absurdity” to consider any new taxes as long as the state is sending checks to the public.

That uncompromising stance helped produce the current stalemate. A balanced fiscal plan would include new taxes, a dividend cut and an increase in oil taxes.

The reversion to try to turn the governor’s race into crowd-pleasing promises about bigger dividends, a grandstanding tactic that Begich shares with Republican Mike Dunleavy, shows that nothing has changed. They are looking at state politics through the lens of the dividend.

Begich and Dunleavy are speaking an old language—they think you can’t go wrong telling people they will get more money.

They have both offered unrealistic ideas about putting things to a vote. Dunleavy has called for an advisory vote that would ask people something similar to, “Do you want a bigger dividend?” Begich has called for a constitutional amendment that would guarantee the dividend and future education funding.

Dunleavy pretends that taxes are not needed. Begich has declined to talk about specific taxes to pay for government because he says there is not the will among legislators to support them.

If that is the only thing keeping Begich from endorsing an income tax, one similar or more progressive than that favored by Walker, he should stop talking about putting the dividend in the Constitution.

There is less support in the Legislature for his proposed constitutional amendment than for new taxes. It requires a two-thirds vote to get a proposed amendment on the ballot.

It is possible that the best way to get an income tax might be to put the dividend in the Constitution, which would narrow the options open to lawmakers. They would have to cut state spending or enact new taxes, both of which will generate opposition, but I’m guessing they would find it easier to raise oil taxes than do anything else.

Dermot Cole1 Comment