ANCHORAGE DAILY PLANET
While you might not ever know it from local news media, a shadowy group has formed to push a sales tax initiative, “Project ‘20s Anchorage,” onto the city’s April ballot – while dodging the city charter’s 60 percent vote requirement for such levies.
The proposal, which needs eight Assembly members’ support to reach the ballot, would impose a 3 percent “temporary” sales tax, to take effect in January 2021. It would raise $375 million for capital projects before it sunsets in five years, the effort’s website says. It promises to exempt food, gasoline – which the Berkowitz administration already taxes – and other “essentials” and even sets up a one week “back to school” tax holiday.
“The projects funded through the initiative will go towards downtown revitalization and needed public safety improvements throughout Anchorage, including added shelter capacity and substance abuse treatment,” says a flier describing the initiative.
Some of that sounds eerily similar to rhetoric some Assembly members and the Berkowitz administration currently are using as they try for the second time in less than a year to push through a 5 percent retail alcohol tax – complete with its own “one-time exemption” to the city charter.
Because the Project ‘20s Anchorage initiative is a general sales tax, the charter requires a supermajority vote, or 60 percent of the votes cast, for passage. But the initiative – surprise! – includes a one-time amendment to the charter that would reduce that supermajority to 50 percent, a gambit increasingly popular with our Assembly as it tries to dodge the charter.
The Project ‘20s Anchorage spending would include: $25 million for Downtown winter upgrade, whatever that might entail; $75 million for trails rehabilitation; $85 million for Alaska Center for Treatment; $25 million for 4th Avenue pedestrian redesign; $40 million for an Eagle River Valley fire station; $25 million for Hillside fire evacuation roads; $50 million for Ship Creek promenade and brewing district; $30 million for Performing Arts Center and Town Square Park rehabilitation; and, $20 million for a tax administration and small business assistance fund.
Who are those pushing the tax? They are not saying. “Project ‘20s is an Anchorage-based citizen- and business-led group working to advance capital projects that make our city a destination for residents, visitors, and investment,” says it website. But under “Who we are” and “Contact Us” on that website there are no names. No telephone numbers. Nada. Zip.
The only name associated with the group is on its Alaska Public Offices Commission filing: Moira J. Gallagher, chairperson. She is former director of the Live. Work. Play. program at the Anchorage Economic Development Corp. The group has not reported contributions or donations for the third quarter, nor will it have to until the initiative makes the ballot.
Like the Recall Dunleavy effort, Alaska law allows this initiative’s contributors and backers to remain secret forever unless the group rolls over into the election campaign any money collected to win a spot on the ballot.
The lack of transparency in Project ‘20s Anchorage should be enough to set off alarm bells. What we have is a ballot initiative full of Anchorage-could-be-a-garden-spot gobbledygook being peddled to the Assembly by …. who? How much has been spent? How much will be spent? Is it a coincidence that what this group wants seems to echo what some on the Assembly and in the administration want?
A cynic might think there could be linkage between the tax effort and some in city government; that Project ‘20s Anchorage is a cover, but there is only one way to dispel any of that: Who are the people backing the initiative and where is the money coming from?