Dunleavy takes aim at fundamental right of Alaska citizens to raise tax by initiative

It’s no wonder that the representatives of Gov. Mike Dunleavy didn’t give an explanation in English of what Alaskans stand to lose under Senate Joint Resolution 4.

That proposed constitutional amendment would make it nearly impossible to raise oil taxes in Alaska. It would do this by mandating a two-step process to increase or enact any state tax, which would give a powerful advantage to those who want to block any change.

No tax could take effect without approval by the Legislature and a statewide vote.

Dunleavy’s representatives, attorneys Mike Barnhill and Bill Milks, spoke about the proposed constitutional amendment to the Senate Judiciary Committee without saying that it would strip Alaskans of a fundamental right.

They disguised it as a plan to promote government efficiency, which it is not. It is an attempt to handcuff the Legislature and the citizens.

“What I want to emphasize for the committee is that the pieces involved here already exist in the Constitution,” Barnhill told the Senate Judiciary Committee, trying to paint a word picture of constitutional improvement.

One piece is that if the state establishes a tax, the people have the right to gather signatures and seek a referendum vote to overturn it.

(That’s what happened in 2014 with SB 21, the oil tax law supported by the industry, which was narrowly retained by voters after the industry and its allies spent $18.5 million to retain it.)

“Conversely, if the people initiate a tax measure, the Legislature in two years has the ability to overturn that decision as well, so these pieces exist now. What this resolution does, Madam Chair, is essentially make them more efficient so that it happens automatically,” he said.

Not true.

If by making the Constitution “more efficient,” he means removing a right from Alaskans, the description is accurate. Furthermore, the only automatic element is that a tax approved by initiative would automatically be defeated unless the Legislature signed off on it. The Dunleavy amendment would not require the Legislature to hold a vote, a triumph for secrecy.

Part of the Dunleavy plan is to prohibit Alaskans from raising taxes through the initiative process. A tax would not take effect unless the Legislature agreed, which means the citizens would lose the ability to decide.

This is not the same as the ability the Legislature has to overturn an initiative two years after it goes into effect, though Barnhill did his best to confuse the matter with bafflegab.

“Conversely, the Legislature can consider an initiated tax law but has to wait two years before it could overturn that. This brings that closer in time so that in order for that initiated tax law to take effect, the Legislature would have to approve it,” he said.

No. What this does is take away the right of the voters to enact a tax through an initiative. The Constitution bans the Legislature from repealing an initiative within two years, but a measure can be amended at any time.

Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds vote in the Legislature, followed by a statewide vote. This two-step process is designed to preserve the Constitution from political attack and bad ideas.

The Legislature should reject Senate Joint Resolution 4 in the interest of efficiency and good government.

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