If you’re afflicted with an unfortunate addiction to following local politics you’ve likely noticed a recent series of op-ed pieces and letters to the editor regarding something with the impressive-sounding title of the “Taxpayer Protection Act.” Unfortunately for the authors of these missives, the charter amendment in question would be more correctly dubbed the “So-called Conservative Clumsy Electioneering Effort of 2011.” To understand why, a little background is in order.
Back in the heady days of Alaska’s early oil wealth, a number of local property tax breaks (e.g. the senior citizens property tax exemption) were mandated in state law. No problem there, state lawmakers generously provided municipal revenue sharing from the the state’s oil dollars and local governments were made whole. As oil revenues started to decline Alaska’s state government did what lots of state governments do – they reduced funding to local governments (painless for the state, more difficult for the local governments). And, eventually, municipal assistance disappeared altogether.
In the middle part of the last decade oil revenues began to rebound and the idea of restarting municipal assistance gained favor in Juneau. Seeking to encourage this thinking, the Anchorage Assembly and then-mayor Mark Begich pledged to use any municipal assistance for tax relief and to give credit to state lawmakers for their generosity, a practice that continued until current mayor Dan Sullivan took office. I still have MOA tax notices from that era reflecting a “property tax credit” and explaining that it, “represents the effect of State Revenue Sharing approved by the State Legislature.” Regular readers will recall the mechanics of how this worked from the post Tax cap primer, published back in November, 2009, and the salient fact revolves around the credit being granted after the taxes were levied. In this manner tax capacity was kept at a higher level, the logic being that if municipal assistance once again disappeared Anchorage could make corresponding cuts, raise taxes to make up the difference or some combination thereof.
I don’t recall anyone fussing much back then but apparently this concept stuck in the craw of then-Assembly member Dan Sullivan who, since assuming the mayor’s office, has insisted that state dollars be placed under the tax cap. That’s a policy call, and reasonable minds can disagree, but apparently changing the way we treat those dollars wasn’t enough. Thus was born the charter amendment in question, first introduced last month by Chris Birch.
A brief aside here – I’m not sure if I should be bemused or amazed that proponents of this measure attempted to rush through a charter amendment, given that Anchorage’s charter is essentially our constitution, in a relatively brief time. Many of these same folks, both office-holders and citizens testifying before the Assembly, chastised some of my colleagues for “rushing” an advisory vote on raising the homeowners property tax exemption from $20k to $50k last spring. Meanwhile I spent over a year fine-tuning the charter amendment on downtown parking, an approach some of these same folks applauded. Somehow this recalls Mencken, hobgoblins…ah, never mind.
The charter amendment’s concept was to memorialize the Sullivan treatment of state dollars but if you needed clues that this proposal was not well thought-out they were easy to find. First, unlike most Assembly proposals, this one was neither drafted nor reviewed by Assembly Counsel – it came directly from the Municipal Attorney’s office. Because everyone on the Assembly knows Mr. Birch doesn’t dedicate much time to Assembly matters it was immediately clear he was carrying the administration’s water. (That’s not to say that all legislation is drafted by Assembly Counsel – I’ve introduced legislation drafted by the Department of Law but route it through Assembly Counsel for additional review.)
Second, no one co-sponsored this thing, Mr. Birch (and Sullivan) were running this all alone. Heck, a couple folks who voted for it hinted privately that they didn’t think much of it but didn’t want to get crosswise with the mayor.
Third, on January 18 administration officials piously informed me that my reading of the following passage, that it would restrict all tax collection to the prior year’s property tax collections, was incorrect:
“The base amount for calculating the next year’s tax increase limit shall be the amount of property taxes to be collected in the current year.” (emphasis added)
By February 1 they’d changed their tune and Mr. Birch himself offered an amendment deleting the word “property.”
Fourth, I pointed out that approval of this charter amendment would preclude a future Assembly from providing temporary property tax relief by using, for example, federal stimulus dollars or funds from a legal settlement. Put another way, approval of this charter amendment would actually prevent certain forms of future tax relief. No one ever refuted this, instead retreating to yet another refrain of the old “Begich-done-me-wrong” song.
Fifth, Mr. Birch wasn’t in town for either the work session or the meeting where we voted (though he was on the phone, deftly deferring questions to the administration).
Finally, following the proposal’s defeat (it didn’t even achieve a majority, let along the eight votes necessary to go on the ballot) we’ve seen the aforementioned drumbeat of publications castigating those with the temerity to vote against a half-baked plan.
Placing issues on the ballot to attract a certain segment of the electorate to the polls has a long history. It’s not illegal and it’s not necessarily unethical. In this case, however, it’s transparent – Mr. Birch now has a modicum of standing to refute the argument, as one local commentator wrote, that he’s “one of the laziest assemblymen in living memory,” while the mayor has an issue upon which to attack three sitting Assembly members whom he’d like to replace with more like-minded candidates.
As for me, not being associated with this behavior makes it a whole lot easier to face the guy in the mirror when I shave.
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