When dealing with our government betters bent on do-gooderism and civic improvement, the question eventually comes to this: How much taxpayer cash do they need to make our lives better?
In Anchorage, there is only one answer: More.
Our august Assembly is proof positive. Almost out of the blue, it is mulling two versions of a 5 percent retail alcohol tax and a six-year, 3 percent general sales tax offered by Chugiak-Eagle River Assemblyman Fred Dyson, all aimed at funding public safety and/or the battle against homelessness.
That does not even include a Johnny-come-lately “temporary” 3 percent general sales tax waiting in the wings. Pushed by something called “Project ‘20s Anchorage,” it would aim to raise $375 million over five years to pay for nine specific capital projects – many of them downtown and geared for tourism.
All that, mind you, just as the city is about to be schnoz-deep in cash from its $1 billion sale of the city-owned Municipal Light & Power to the Chugach Electric Association. When the RCA finalizes the deal, expected later this year, Chugach says Anchorage will get a $767.8 million upfront payment along with various additional payments adding up to about $240 million over the years.
That ain’t chicken feed. You could be forgiven for wondering why our fair city – which already has stuck us with a 10-cent-per-gallon, $15 million-per-year gasoline tax – needs more tax money when a fleet of Brinks trucks is headed our way. It is a good question, and right now there are more proposed taxes than answers.
The Assembly, undeterred by history or the public will, is dusting off two iterations of an already defeated 5 percent retail tax on alcohol that it says could bring the city up to $15 million a year. Apparently nobody in the head shed can come up with a new idea. This time, Assembly chair Felix Rivera, as well as members Austin Quinn-Davidson and Forrest Dunbar, are the proud sponsors. Mind you, eight previous attempts over the years failed.
Just nine short months ago, 34,461 voters soundly rejected the tax, along with the accompanying city charter dodge that would have allowed the levy with a simple majority vote rather than the charter’s required three-fifths supermajority.
Last time, some on the Assembly wanted the tax badly enough to shamelessly offer de facto bribes to the hospitality industry, promising longer bar hours if it would not oppose the tax. It did not work. This time, voters again would be asked to exempt the proposed levy from the city charter’s required 60% approval vote.
None of the proposed taxes should be given a spot on the ballot. The alcohol “sin” tax is a tired retread aimed at punishing those who drink, and singling them out to pay for the city’s homeless problem and other associated ills. The argument that only drinkers and the liquor industry should pay for problems associated with alcohol abuse or homelessness makes as much sense as saying only fast-food restaurants should pay for diabetes and heart disease. Taxes should apply to everyone.
Add to that, the Assembly’s perpetual assault on the charter’s 1997 stricture on simple majority votes for sales taxes is more than just annoying. It shows a decided lack of respect for the voters’ will. And Dyson’s offering? Just … why?
The Project ‘20s effort has its own problems. It lacks transparency, and that alone should keep it off the ballot. That its backers can try to influence public policy without revealing who they are or their funding sources is absurd. Alaska law allows the initiative’s contributors and backers to remain secret forever unless the group rolls over into the election campaign any money collected before getting a spot on the ballot.
It is the same inexplicable blind spot in state law and regulation that allows the stealth Recall Dunleavy campaign to gather signatures and press ahead while keeping secret its funding sources and backers.
It is easy to argue generally against sales taxes. They are peddled as ways to bolster budgets or fund specific things such as education, roads and fire departments. In actuality, they are regressive, hitting hardest the poorest among us. They rarely are reduced or repealed, generally increase over time and seldom are temporary.
The Assembly’s offerings have one other aspect working against them: They appear unnecessary. Not surprisingly, the single thing most glaringly absent in the hoopla about the proposed taxes is a discussion about reducing spending to match revenues. With a municipal budget that has grown almost 15 percent since the 2015 election of Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, why should anyone pay more taxes until spending is in check?
All of that brings up a better answer for government officials pressing for more money to improve our lives:
You have enough, make it work.