James Eli Shiffer, the Star Tribune’s watchdog and data editor, digs into data and documents to uncover the news. Reach him at 612-673-4116, james.shiffer@startribune.com or follow him on Twitter at @jameselishiffer. Tell us what to investigate. Send your story tips to whistleblower@startribune.com.

Letter from Alaska: A battle over taxing oil companies

Posted by: James Eli Shiffer Updated: August 18, 2014 - 1:14 PM

If you're wondering why this blog went dark for the past two weeks, I was on vacation in the great state of Alaska. It's a state that could fit seven Minnesotas within its borders but is home to only 735,000 people, just a little bit more than the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul combined.

While I was cavorting with grizzlies, moose and salmon, I could hardly ignore the red "vote yes" and "vote no" yard signs that sprouted just about everywhere. On Tuesday, Alaska voters will head to the polls and confront a referendum that speaks to the state's constant unease over its dependence on oil jobs and revenue. The ballot measure would repeal a suite of recently-passed tax credits for petroleum companies.

It's a debate that doesn't easily fall along partisan lines. Former Gov. Sarah Palin, Alaska's most famous politician and a Republican, supports the referendum, which would restore higher taxes for oil producers. Current Gov. Sean Parnell, who replaced Palin when she resigned mid-term, argued in an op-ed in the Alaska Dispatch News that oil jobs will migrate to North Dakota and other oil-producing states in the repeal succeeds. 

Both sides say they support more oil exploration. so it's not a question of environmentalists versus drillers. It's understandable in a state where many oil jobs pay union wages and every Alaskan, instead of paying incomes taxes, gets an annual check from oil and gas royalties (last year, it was $900). But Alaska has lost ground in the petroleum boom, falling behind to North Dakota two years ago and now California, according to the Wall Street Journal.

North Dakota, meanwhile, has begun to experience some Alaska-style conflicts between its oil bonanza and the natural landscapes that inspired a future president's conservation vision. My colleague Pam Louwagie reports how the superintendent of Theodore Roosevelt National Park is working to protect this remnant of prairie badlands, where bison snort and prairie dogs whistle.

Above photo from Alaska Dispatch News

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