Alaska judge dismisses lawsuit against backers of oil tax initiative

Anchorage attorney Robin Brena sits at a meeting of the citizens initiative campaign to raise taxes on Alaska’s largest oil producers on Thursday, January 16, 2020. (Photo by Nat Herz / Alaska’s Energy Desk)

An Alaska judge on Thursday dismissed a lawsuit against the backers of a ballot initiative that would raise taxes on the state’s three largest oil fields.

The Resource Development Council for Alaska and five other industry trade groups filed the lawsuit in April. They argued that people gathering signatures to get the initiative on the ballot were paid more than $1 per name, a violation of state law. They wanted those signatures tossed out.

The group backing the initiative, Vote Yes for Alaska’s Fair Share, denied the claim, and called on the court to dismiss the lawsuit.

On Thursday, Superior Court Judge Thomas Matthews did just that.

In a 30-page order, he said the state law that prohibits payment greater than $1 per signature is a “unconstitutional restriction on free speech” and could hinder signature gathering. He said disregarding the “technical violation” of the law would promote First Amendment rights by allowing voters to weigh-in on the initiative.

“By contrast, disregard of thousands of otherwise valid signatures operates like a sledgehammer on a mosquito,” he said. “It may do the job, but it wreaks havoc in the process.”

He asked: “Why should voters be disenfranchised because a circulator fails to meet technical statutory requirements?”

Initiative sponsor Robin Brena, an oil and gas attorney from Anchorage, applauded the judge’s decision in a statement on Thursday.

“Clearly our opposition decided they can’t win at the polls so they tried to get the courts to strip Alaskans of their right to vote for Alaska’s Fair Share,” he said.

Matt Singer, an attorney for the industry groups, said they would likely appeal the decision.

“We respectfully disagree with some of what the judge found,” he said.

The oil tax initiative is headed to Alaska’s statewide ballot in November. It would raise the minimum tax and eliminate oil tax credits for Alaska’s largest oil fields. It would also require oil companies to publicly report their revenues and costs from those fields.

So far, Brena’s group has reported raising about $660,000 in support of the initiative — a chunk of it from Brena himself with dozens of smaller donations from individuals.

The group OneAlaska — formed last year to oppose the initiative — has raised nearly $9.9 million, much of it from ExxonMobil, BP, ConocoPhillips and Hilcorp.

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