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By ZACHARY HALSCHAK
For the Daily News
Editor's Note: The Alaska House District 36 seat is open in the 2018 election cycle. Three Ketchikan-based candidates are running for election to the seat. One of the candidates is two-term incumbent independent Rep. Dan Ortiz, who will be on the general election ballot on Nov. 6. Ortiz will face Democratic challenger Ghert Abbott, who's the sole candidate for HD 36 in the Alaska Democratic Party primary election on Aug. 21, and Republican challenger Trevor Shaw, who's the only candidate for HD36 in the Alaska Republican Party primary election, also on Aug. 21. Each candidate has talked with reporter Zachary Halaschak, who has filed candidate profile stories with the Daily News. The profile of Ghert Abbott is included here, Dan Ortiz is scheduled Thursday and Trevor Shaw was featured on Tuesday.
Ghert Abbott, a local historian, is the Democratic candidate for the District 36 House seat and is running on two major policy platforms: protecting the Alaska Permanent Fund dividends and the introduction of a progressive income tax.
Abbott spoke to the Daily News on July 31 about his candidacy, why he decided to throw his hat into the ring and why he thinks his agenda is right for District 36 and for the state as a whole.
“Right now the greatest lie in our state politics is that Alaska doesn't have a tax system,” Abbott said. “It does have a state tax system, which is the head tax being placed on every (Alaska) Permanent Fund recipient regardless of age or economic circumstance.”
Abbott said that this “tax” is one of the most “inequitable means of raising revenue that could be devised.”
Senate Bill 26, which passed the state Legislature this past spring, creates a percent-of-market-value draw on the earnings reserve of the Alaska Permanent Fund in order to help bridge the fiscal deficit.
SB 26 had supporters and detractors on both sides of the aisle, and Abbott is one of those detractors.
“It endangers the financial health of the permanent fund and endangers its long-term value by not properly inflation proofing it,” Abbott emphasized. He said that the legislation puts more of a burden on “working and poor and middle-class Alaskan families. … And lets the rich get off scot-free.”
Abbott calls these “secret silent taxes that are being placed on every Alaskan.”
“It falls heavily on young people who are trying to save up money so they can make a start in life,” Abbot said. “… It particularly penalizes those who are trying to start families or raise families. … The PFD tax is particularly bad for the elderly who have to live (on) a fixed income.”
Abbott added that he partially paid his way through college by saving up his permanent fund dividends.
“The state government in drawing money from the earnings reserve and not properly inflation-proofing the fund are essentially stealing Alaskans' birthright,” Abbot said. “They are freezing the value of the fund so it stops growing and then they have created a certain situation in which if there is a market correction there is a 50 percent chance of this fund losing real value. Essentially shrinking.”
Abbott said the bill also has a “discriminatory geographic impact” and disproportionately hurts rural families in the state where the cost of living is higher.
So instead, Abbott is in favor of a statewide progressive income tax modeled off of the one the state had in 1975, which he said would be more equitable to Alaskans.
“According to the State Legislative Finance Bureau, the state income tax modeled off of the 1975 model would bring in between $900 million and $1.7 billion, with a median return of $1.25 billion,” Abbott said. “If you pair that with the elimination of the per-barrel oil tax credit, which is essentially a tax reduction that is given to each barrel of oil produced, that will in turn raise between $900 million and $1.1 billion. Combine those two and you essentially have filled in almost the entire state deficit.”
“It's important to note that this is not really some new idea, but this is actually an old, time-tested (idea),” Abbott said. “Alaska had an income tax before statehood, it began its income tax in 1949.
“The goal at the time was to demonstrate to Congress that Alaska could be self-supporting financially,” he said. “A lot of people in Congress were worried that if they granted Alaska statehood (it) wouldn't be able to pay for itself and Congress would have to bail them out.”
Abbott said in order to prove to Congress that Alaska could pay for itself, an income tax was introduced.
Then in 1975, Abbott said, “(the State) changed the tax system but not the amount of revenue collected. They switched from 16 percent of your federal tax obligation.
“So they shifted to an independent bracket system — very progressive — with 22 brackets,” Abbott said.
“This wasn't an increase or decrease, this was just a change of how the taxes — just a change of how it was collected,” he added.
Abbott said the income tax was invaluable during the “pipeline period” where the wages on pipeline workers — many from down south — were taxed to cover burgeoning costs of state services.
“Anything the State built between 1949 and 1980, it was built with the help of the income tax,” Abbott said. “And then the income taxes ended in 1980 because a lot of people felt it wasn't needed anymore because of the oil.
“And now with oil no longer being able to cover the full cost of the state, I believe we should return to the time-tested, one of the time-tested methods of supporting our state, which is the income tax,” he said.
Abbott said that although some might just say to reduce government spending instead, he insists that the government has already been significantly pared down.
“The state government is roughly the size it was before we had the oil boom,” Abbott said. “And if we reduce it further it will be incredibly painful.”
Abbott also said that he is in favor of enshrining the Alaska Permanent Fund dividends into the state constitution. Although, he wishes that the Legislature would first pass legislation to protect the PFD.
When asked about what legislation he thinks has been positive for the state in the past few years, Abbott pointed to Medicaid expansion, which he said has helped rural Alaska.
“There's the Medicaid expansion, I was very much in favor of that. It was in the best interest of the state,” he said. “… It increased the number of Alaskans with health insurance.”
During the interview, the Daily News asked Abbott, who is running as a Democrat, what that party affiliation means to him and how he sees the Democratic Party.
“I want to transform the party in a far more progressive direction. I'm involved in Democratic Party politics because I want to move the party into adopting (the) Bernie Sanders platform.”
Sanders is a self-described democratic socialist who currently serves as an independent U.S. senator from Vermont. In 2016, Sanders unsuccessfully ran against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.
In getting his message across, Abbott said that he has been knocking on doors and meeting with folks in the First City to hear their concerns and express his. He said most conversation revolves around the economics of Alaska.
“Generally we talk about the state fiscal situation,” he said. “… A lot of people are very positive about my positions; particularly protecting the permanent fund dividend.”
“They're generally very positive toward that combination,” Abbott said referencing his largely two-pronged policy platform that includes an income tax.
According to the most recent publically available documents, Abbott reported $145 in campaign contributions.
The Daily News also asked Abbott about his positions on a number of local and statewide issues.
In terms of improving and reforming the Alaska Marine Highway System, Abbott said that the issue was tied to Alaska's fiscal situation.
“I haven't gotten into the technical aspects of how to improve general operation,” he said. “But I would say it's hard to really improve something when the fiscal situation is so unstable and you're kind of just allocating things year from year, it's hard to make plans, it's hard to actually focus on improvements, so resolving the fiscal crisis is the first step to improving the Alaska Marine Highway System.
In terms of the new Federal Emergency Management Agency's new flood plain maps for Revillagigedo Island — an issue that has affected a number of residents, Abbott thinks FEMA should be more cognizant of citizens in the First City.
“I've heard there are a lot of complaints about them,” Abbott said, “and generally I think that the government officials who are making decisions from very far away should be brought — should be fully informed about local conditions, especially when the people in those local conditions feel that the decisions are not in line with actual reality.”
When asked about what could be improved in the education system on a state level, Abbott brought it back to Alaska's fiscal situation.
“Well again, restore financial stability to the state,” Abbott said. “Again, because it's hard to focus on long-term planning and improvement when you're constantly fighting over how scarce resources should be allocated. Because everything is up in the air.
“Restoring financial stability is the first step to improving all state services,” he added.
In terms of public safety and the opioid epidemic, Abbott said that much of the problem might stem from underfunding of public services. He also said he favors more rehabilitative criminal justice measures.
“Generally I favor more rehabilitative forms of justice,” Abbott said. “I don't think punitive (measures) have a very good record of success. But I would like to point out again that a lot of the crime has been because, again, the police or the public safety, have not gotten the investment that they need.”
Abbott also addressed the opioid epidemic, which has killed thousands across the country.
“I think opiates should be much harder to acquire,” Abbott said, adding that he also thinks there should be improved access to treatment and management drugs like methadone and Suboxone.
He also thinks that marijuana should be encouraged for pain relief, more so than pain control substances like opioids.
“(Marijuana) is not nearly as harmful or addictive as opiates,” Abbott said.
When asked about global warming, Abbott said that it is of great concern to District 36, as well as the state as a whole.
“We live in a seaside community, so climate change is going to affect us through rising sea levels,” he said. “That's a simple fact.”
“Actually I helped write the plank in the state party platform regarding climate change,” Abbott said. That platform can be viewed online at the party's website.
On the issue of abortion, Abbott said that he believes women should have a right to choose and that is a matter of individual conscious.
“I am very pro-choice,” Abbott said. “… It should be the individual who decides whether it's right or wrong.”
When he was asked about his views on gun control or what, if anything, he thinks should change in state law, Abbott expressed concern with the number of shootings in the country.
“You know, when Virginia Tech (shooting) happened, I was really depressed for a week — I just kinda walked around in a daze. And now when events happen I don't really feel anything. They've just become so regular and constant. And you know it's only a matter of time until this happens here,” he said. “… Then everyone will be wondering 'how did this happen?' And the thoughts and the prayers of the country will be with us and then everything will move on.”
“I believe there should be additional regulations,” Abbott said. “… The government cannot confiscate the weapons of law-abiding citizens, but it has the right to regulate their conduct. And whether the person who owns the gun poses a danger to the community would fall within the right of the government to regulate that.”
When asked what specific laws or regulations he would potentially support, Abbott said he has been more honed into the fiscal system in Alaska than the issue of gun control.
“To be honest, I haven't really given it all that much thought and specifics because I'm not sure that anything will ... happen,” Abbott said. “And I've been focused on the financial situation where I feel I can actually make a difference.”
When asked by the Daily News what Abbott thought some issues that weren't being talked about enough were, he replied, “The ravages of the state's austerity.”
“In addition to the inequitable tax system the state has established, the state Legislature has also been cutting many essential social services,” Abbott said. “… This hits communities like Ketchikan harder than other communities.”
Abbott said that cuts to government detrimentally impact poor and working class folks in the state.
“The rich don't need the Pioneer Home, the rich don't need the marine highway system, the rich don't need Medicaid or the various health programs the State of Alaska maintains to help people,” Abbott said. “They don't need any of that.”
When the Daily News asked whom he admires from Alaska politics, or draws inspiration from, Abbott mentioned Alaska's first Native in the Alaska Territorial Legislature, William Paul, who was from Ketchikan and first elected in 1924.
Abbott said Paul fought for the working people of Ketchikan against the “big business interests of the town.”
Abbott also mentioned former-Gov. Jay Hammond, who helped set up the permanent fund program.
All in all, Abbott wants voters to know that his message is two-fold — securing the PFD and instituting a progressive income tax. He thinks the first step in tacking many of Alaska's other issues start there.
“I believe in this town and this state,” Abbott said. “… We need a state revenue system that treats the community fairly. That doesn't exacerbate the cost of living here, but rather does the opposite and encourages people to come to Ketchikan.”