By Jenny Neyman
For not being part of Kenai Peninsula Borough government, James Price has had a considerable impact on it.
He’s been directly involved in changing borough policy, lowering taxes, limiting assembly authority, and has helped bring two lawsuits against the municipality.
All this from a guy who’s only elected position is a term on the North Peninsula Recreation Service Area, who’s never worked in government, and who wasn’t even particularly interested in politics before moving to Nikiski.
“Before I came to the state of Alaska, I never voted. Now I register more people to vote than most people know,” he said.
Price moved north in 1988 from Portland, although he’s originally an oilfield worker from Texas. He’s a journeyman pipe fitter and has his process instrumentation certification from Kenai Peninsula College. He’s worked on Cook Inlet oil platforms and the North Slope, does construction work periodically and has commercial fished sockeye salmon for years, although he’s gravitating away from that, he said. Currently he’s working cutting vinyl through his own business, but is looking for another endeavor.
“In the next month or so — I keep threatening to do it, and I need to — I need to get a job,” he said.
That’s not to say Price doesn’t have plenty to keep him busy. He estimates spending more than 1,000 hours a year on his political activities in the borough, which include his involvement with the Alliance of Concerned Taxpayers to rein in borough taxes and spending, and the Alaskans for Grocery Tax Relief Now group, which was behind the Oct. 7 ballot initiative to seasonally eradicate sales taxes on groceries in the borough. He also helped found the now-defunct Alaska Voters Organization, a watchdog group that reviewed legislative bills and kept tabs on the Legislature.
To some, Price and his associates are activist heroes, fighting for residents against a government that overtaxes, overspends and overlooks the wishes of its citizens. To others, their attempts to change policies, limit assembly authority and file lawsuits when their efforts don’t produce the desired results, makes them a nuisance, at best, or domestic terrorists — as former borough Mayor John Williams once called them — at worst.
To Price, he’s doing what he believes is right, even if many government and elected officials don’t agree with him.
“It comes out of my total frustration in dealing with government,” Price said of his political involvement. “Basically, I don’t accept the fact that government has to be the way that the borough says that it is. I believe that government is by and for the people.”
Price’s tool of choice is the initiative process, whereby citizens can effect direct changes in government by putting measures before voters — in effect sidestepping the usual route of public policymaking through elected and governmental officials.
“I couldn’t even dream of living in a state that doesn’t have initiative power, because without it I think that people are second-class citizens,” Price said. “It keeps government honest. It keeps government in line with what the will of the people is. It forces the state to be more responsive to the people.”
Price’s first exposure to politics came in 1998, when he served as campaign chairman for his friend Aaron Goforth’s bid for a state House seat.
“And that actually made me interested in trying to make some changes, to make a difference in the community,” he said.
Price has run unsuccessfully for seats in the state Legislature and borough assembly. From 2003-2006 he served on the North Peninsula Recreation Service Area board. But he’s had far more impact on how the borough does business as an outsider, wielding the power of the initiative.
He’s sponsored, co-sponsored and supported initiatives that have had wide-ranging impacts on the borough. The first was in 2001, when he and fellow members of Peninsula Citizens Against Private Prisons blocked a proposal to build an 800- to 1,000-bed, medium-security, private prison in the borough.
Price himself, or one of the groups he’s involved with, has proposed an initiative most years since then. ACT has targeted taxing, spending and borough policy, with measures to lower and cap the borough sales tax rate, cap borough spending at $1 million, and institute term limits on the borough assembly and school board.
In Nikiski, Price fought plans by the North Peninsula Recreation Service Area to pay to turn the vacated Nikiski Elementary School building into a community center.
And he’s tried to do away with sales taxes on nonprepared food twice, once in 2002 with an initiative to exempt groceries from sales taxes year-round, and in the October election with an initiative to exempt them seasonally so taxes would still be gathered in the summer.
Some measures did not garner enough voter support, like the first grocery tax initiative and a measure to restrict NSPRA to nothing but recreation activities. Others were successful. NSPRA’s spending was capped at $500,000 without a vote of service area members, and the borough’s spending cap was lowered from $1.5 million to $1 million with the requirement that 60 percent of voters must approve capital spending projects over that amount.
“We constantly assess our tactics, and what’s been successful and what’s failed. I think we’re creating better initiatives and cleaner, better ideas based on not just the Kenai Peninsula Borough, but other boroughs in the state of Alaska, and building on success we’ve had with many of our initiatives in the past,” Price said.
Then there are the initiatives that pass, yet don’t work out the way Price and fellow activists intend them to. Take term limits, for example. In 2007, voters approved instituting term limits on elected borough and school board officials. But in the same election, voters also re-elected assembly and school board members who had already served multiple terms. The re-elected members were reseated, and ACT filed suit to challenge the decision. A judge in August ruled that the school board was exempt from the term limits initiative, and the re-elected assembly members could keep their seats.
In 2006, Price and ACT followed their successful initiative to reduce and cap the borough sales tax rate in 2005 with an initiative that would rescind the entire revenue enhancement measure that the sales tax increase was part of. This time citizens voted no, which prompted the borough to reinstitute the sales tax increase, on the justification that the vote signaled citizens’ support of the entire piece of legislation, including the tax rate increase. ACT again filed suit.
Price’s current battle is over the grocery tax. The seasonal sales tax exemption garnered voter approval in October, but the borough assembly decided to grant cities the option of opting out of the exemption. As a result, Kenai and Soldotna will still collect sales taxes on groceries in the winter, and Homer is considering doing the same.
“It just gets awful. It’s almost like stepping in a tar pit and you start wiggling around and you’re just covered,” Price said. “When the borough accepts initiatives from the people and turns around and refuses to accept it once it’s voted on, that is just objectionable to the whole process.”
Price said the fight isn’t over. The group is hesitant to file another lawsuit without yet having the money to pay for it, but that is an option. More likely the group will address the issue with specific cities, and possibly do another initiative.
“I want for the people to get the benefit from the initiative that they passed, and want to see grocery taxes suspended in the borough,” Price said.
A long-term goal for Price is ACT’s ultimate aim — enacting a borough tax and spending cap. The measure would set a baseline borough budget, and restrict the amount of taxes it could gather and the amount it could spend based on population increases and inflation, as well as how much other revenue was coming in.
In the meantime, Price is heartened by borough Mayor Dave Carey’s willingness to meet and talk with ACT members.
“I really think the direction Mayor Carey is going could be real restorative to the balance in the borough. I think that’s very commendable,” Price said.
But that doesn’t mean he’s going to sit back and leave government to its own devices.
“The initiative process only works when representatives and officials are not doing what people want them to do. That’s why we have so much success, is because our assembly members still to this day are not doing what the people want them to do,” Price said. “If citizens were represented appropriately at the assembly level, there would not be a reason and there would be no initiatives to possibly do because what needed to be done would be done.”