Alaska’s Voters Oust Tax-Hiking, Big-Spending Gov. Murkowski

Published November 1, 2006

The former mayor of a city of 7,000 people trounced Alaska’s incumbent governor to win the Republican Party nomination for the November general election.

Gov. Frank Murkowski, characterized by critics as a pork-loving big spender, garnered only 19 percent of the votes cast in the August 21 Republican primary election.

Sarah Palin, former mayor of Wasilla, a town about 40 miles north of Anchorage, won the nomination with 51 percent of the vote. Former state senator John Binkley received 30 percent.

Palin will square off against former two-term governor Tony Knowles, the Democratic nominee for governor, in the November general election.

‘Disconnected from People’

In a telephone interview the day after the election, Palin said, “Governor Murkowski seems to have been disconnected from the people who live here. Some of the actions he’s taken have frustrated Alaskans, obviously. We were outspent four to one. We didn’t solicit oil industry dollars and tourist industry dollars and dollars from other major industries as he did, and we won.”

Palin’s victory angered Alaska’s Republican machine politicians.

“Palin has so far prevailed against all odds, and against her own party’s mainstream, which not only is against her but at times lately has seemed to be trying to dismantle her campaign,” wrote Anchorage Press reporter Amanda Coyne shortly before primary election day, when polls showed Palin the likely winner.

“Alaska’s Republican Party has had its share of meltdowns, but no politician has stepped from its ashes like Palin, a small-town, angel-faced mother of four, an avid hunter and a fisher with a killer smile who wears designer glasses and heels, and hair like modern sculpture, who’s taking it to the boys ever so softly,” Coyne added.

Contrasting Records

Palin built on her six-year tenure as mayor of Wasilla, where she eliminated personal property taxes, small business inventory taxes, and business license renewal fees, and where the property tax levy was reduced each year she was in office.

Palin left office because she was term-limited.

“That fiscally conservative way of budgeting and taxing produced good results,” Palin said. “Wasilla is one of the fastest-growing communities in Alaska. It was all about fair taxation. Other than that the focus was on roads, water, sewer, and police.”

Murkowski went out of his way to antagonize Alaska’s citizens, critics say.

“Governor Murkowski has made plenty of mistakes in his sole term in Juneau. It actually started before that, with campaign promises that he wasted no time breaking,” wrote Coyne in her pre-election profile for the Anchorage Press.

Coyne continued, “He ran on a no-tax platform but almost immediately proposed a sales tax and then settled for that great tax work-around, ‘user fees.’ He slashed the longevity bonus, the senior-citizen stipend that had become a virtual entitlement. He appointed his daughter, Lisa Murkowski, to fill his term in the U.S. Senate, a position for which both Binkley and Palin were said to be vying.”

Oil Taxes, Jet Plane

Palin said one of the last straws may have been when Murkowski proposed new oil taxes and terms for a natural gas pipeline to the state after two years of negotiations with oil companies. She chuckled at Murkowski’s purchase of a state jet for himself to use. That purchase, she said, caused a lot of anger among lawmakers and constituents.

“The legislature said ‘no’ to the jet, and he went out and got it anyway. One of my commitments is we get rid of that jet,” Palin said.

There were also the makings of a scandal involving the Murkowski family and Alaska’s infamous “Bridge to Nowhere,” a proposed bridge from Ketchikan to Gravina Island, home to 50 people and the local airport. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) has been championing more than $200 million in federal funds for the bridge, the final price tag for which could top $1 billion.

As Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and other critics inside Washington and at the grassroots turned up the heat against funding for the bridge, news came out that Murkowksi’s wife and three of her siblings own land on the Gravina Island end of the bridge. A bridge likely would increase property values there.

“The Murkowski family owning land where that bridge would go was one of many, many, many things that upset Alaskans,” Palin said.

Misplaced Priorities

That only one in five members of Murkowski’s party voted for him shows how intensely disliked his spending and budget priorities were, said Emily Ferry, coordinator of the Alaska Transportation Priorities Project, a statewide watchdog organization that focuses on transportation issues.

“For the past four years Murkowski pushed a lot of really unpopular agenda items, from roads and bridges to nowhere when we have other important transportation needs, to purchasing a jet after the legislature told him no,” Ferry said the day after the election.

“He ignored the public, ignored the voters, ignored the important things,” explained Ferry. “On Tuesday voters had the opportunity to tell him what they thought about that.”

National taxpayer watchdogs agreed.

“The taxpayers of Alaska have sent a message that pork-barrel spending does not pay at the ballot box,” said Tom Schatz, president of the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste. “This shows that fiscal responsibility is of prime importance to voters and incumbents everywhere should take notice.”

“Too bad Murkowski was blinded by power and did not learn the lesson many leaders, including the first President Bush and former governors Jim Florio, Mario Cuomo, and Gray Davis provided,” said taxpayer advocate Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. “You raise taxes, you lose.”

Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is managing editor of Budget & Tax News.