The Morning Headlamp — Poll problems and Senators question Walker’s plan

More Polls. A new poll by Alaska Dispatch News shows majority support for Gov. Bill Walker’s plan to close the state’s budget gap — though the proposal, which would reduce Alaskans dividend checks, is opposed by Republicans, according to the poll, and comes amid a drop in Walker’s approval rating. The poll, conducted by Ivan Moore Research, had a 3.8 percent margin of error — meaning that at the time the poll was conducted, it is nearly certain that the results are within 3.8 percent of the true proportion of opinions held by Alaskans. In the poll of 651 registered voters, conducted this month, 52 percent of respondents said they supported Walker’s plan and would be more likely to support a legislator who voted for a proposal like it, while 43 percent said they opposed the plan. The poll, conducted in the second week of January, is the latest in a series of surveys of Alaskans’ ideas about solutions to the state’s financial crisis — though entities that commissioned the other two surveys, the Rasmuson Foundation and a group called Alaska’s Future, are also pushing lawmakers to take specific actions in response.

Among Republicans polled, 58 percent oppose Walker’s plan, which would reduce Permanent Fund dividends and levy a small income tax, compared to 35 percent who support it — which is perhaps one explanation for the skepticism expressed by many of the Republicans who control the state Legislature. Even so, 71 percent of GOP poll respondents said it was very important that lawmakers enact a plan of the same sort as Walker’s, and another 22 percent said it was somewhat important. Anchorage Rep. Craig Johnson, said his decisions on the state’s budget crisis would be “based upon the facts as they are in committees…I will not be anywhere based on a poll,” he said.” He dismissed the poll’s data on Walker’s fiscal plan, saying one of the questions was misleading by painting the proposal in a favorable light. Rep. Johnson and a staff member noted that the question refers to the package as “continuing to reduce government spending” and stabilizing dividends at “about $1,000.” “Go back and read that question in the context of reality,” Johnson said. “There are no cuts.” While Walker’s plan would cut $100 million from the state’s agency operating budget, the state’s total spending for next year would, in fact, increase by 1.2 percent. And the plan only guarantees dividends at $1,000 for one year; without that guarantee, dividends could be $500 or lower and would remain low unless oil prices rise.

Headlamp is glad to hear that at least one Alaskan lawmaker will base their policy making off facts, rather than ambiguous poll results. Furthermore, while polling isn’t an exact science, it’s worth noting that Ivan Moore’s polls have not traditionally been seen as the gold standard in Alaska. During the 2014 Senate race between Dan Sullivan and Mark Begich, Moore predicted Begich would win by six points. Sullivan went on to win by nearly three points. While successful polling can be a valuable tool from a public policy standpoint, a poorly done poll can be just as counterproductive.

Yesterday, Senate State Affairs Committee unpacked Gov. Bill Walker’s plan for the Permanent Fund as questions ranged from feasibility to constitutionality. The Legislative Finance Division expressed concern that co-mingling royalties and taxes intended for appropriations with the protected interest of the Permanent Fund changes the nature of the earnings reserve. Appropriations from the CBR require the support of three-fourths of each legislative chamber, raising the possibility that at least 45 legislators would have to vote to fund the budget every year. Senate State Affairs Chair Bill Stoltze said Thursday he was having a hard time reconciling the administration’s desire to protect the State’s savings, while moving CBR money protected by the three-quarter vote to the earnings reserve from which a simple majority can vote to appropriate. He described SB 128 as an effort to sidestep the constitution.

State Affairs members also questioned the fiscal sense behind Walker’s plan. Sen. Charlie Huggins called for additional cuts, and Sen. Lesil McGuire noted that while Wyoming’s population is slightly larger than Alaska’s, its budget is half the size. “The governor’s proposed budget is an increase,” House Rules Chair Craig Johnson said Thursday, “I find it hard to go back to my constituents and say, ‘We’re going to increase the budget and tax you.”

If Walker’s plan were in place this year and the PFD were tied to mineral royalties instead of investment returns as he proposes, the payout would be between $300 and $500. “I see a real problem there,” reacted Senate Majority Leader John Coghill. Coghill said Walker’s plan shifts risk from government to the people of Alaska.

If yesterday’s questions are an indication of what’s to come, it looks like Gov. Walker’s plan will go through quite the review process during this session—and Headlamp is happy to hear it. We know Alaska is facing quite the fiscal conundrum, but the Governor’s plan is not an option we think most Alaskans would be pleased with down the road. To remind our readers, the Governor’s plan does not balance the budget this year, it in fact leaves the state over $400 million in the hole. Likewise, it opens the door to taxing Alaskans income in perpetuity. The natural tendency of government over time is to grow; thus necessitating the need for more revenues being extracted from the private economy. If we fail to rein in government spending, and instead burden future generations of Alaskans with taxes, we should be ashamed. Headlamp applauds the lawmakers who are addressing the failings of Gov. Walker’s proposed plan.

According to Politico, Sen. Murkowski has nabbed Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz for a trip next month to Alaska that will include a Feb. 15 field hearing she will chair in Bethel to “examine opportunities for energy innovation and technology deployment in high-cost areas in Alaska and around the country.” The trip will also include a visit to Cook Inlet “to look at some of the offshore platforms there.” Other senators scheduled to make the trip are John Barrasso, Shelley Moore Capito, Angus King and Steve Daines. What a week for Sen. Murkowski! Headlamp looks forward to more US officials exploring the energy opportunities Alaska has to offer this month! We hope there is an emphasis on unlocking Alaska’s energy potential, especially in the Arctic.


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First Reads

New poll: Alaskans support Gov. Walker’s plan to close budget gap
Alaska Dispatch News, Nathaniel Herz, January 28, 2016

State oil income could hit zero if prices remain where they are
Alaska Dispatch News, Dermot Cole, January 28, 2016

Senators Probe Gov. Walker’s Plans for the Permanent Fund
Alaska Commons, Craig Tuten, January 28, 2016

Morning Energy: Senate gets to work on energy bill
Politico, Eric Wolff, January 29, 2016