Alaska Permanent Fund dividends hit bank accounts this week, but the money has arrived with a bit less fanfare than in years past.
Perhaps there’s less hype because we already knew what we were going to get — the Legislature set this year’s payout at $1,100 per person, making September’s big reveal — which had taken on a game show atmosphere — moot.
Perhaps there’s a little less excitement because, with the state’s economic slowdown, people are spending more of their dividend check on essentials — food, clothes, utility bills, housing — rather than luxuries like a new TV or the latest gaming system.
Or perhaps there’s a somber mood because the $1,100 is about half of what the dividend might have been — had lawmakers not been also trying to deal with a multi-billion dollar deficit, which is forcing them to explore the possibility of using Permanent Fund earnings to pay for state government. But as dividend checks are being deposited, many Alaskans are also feeling the effects of cuts to education, transportation, public safety and other state agencies.
Indeed, if you haven’t been doing so already, Alaskans should be asking just what, philosophically, the purpose of the Permanent Fund is, because the answer to that question is going to shape state policy for years to come.
The Legislature is scheduled to reconvene Oct. 23, with two items on the agenda — a bill to address issues created by recent criminal justice reform, and Gov. Bill Walker’s proposal for a payroll tax.
However, just about every member of the Legislature knows there is much heavier lifting to do on the budget deficit, and it will involve the use of Permanent Fund earnings in some form.
The topic has generated passionate responses, including a sharp debate on the topic at a town hall meeting with the area’s legislative contingent in Soldotna Wednesday.
At that meeting, Sen. Peter Micciche, a Soldotna Republican, said his office will be looking into another town hall meeting on a percent of market value plan, under which structured draws would be taken on Permanent Fund earnings to pay for government. The state Senate has passed similar plans in recent legislative sessions, but so far, members of the House have been reluctant to follow suit, this past year insisting that such a plan also include a broad-based tax.
At the town hall meeting, Sen. Micciche said the Senate Majority had requested work sessions this fall to hash out some of the differences on budget measures heading in to the start of the next regular session in January. Given the tack Gov. Walker has taken with his payroll tax proposal — which he has tied to the amount of the Permanent Fund dividend — we’re disappointed those work sessions are not likely to take place.
But that brings us back to the question we all should be not just asking, but at this point, answering, about the purpose of the Permanent Fund. Because as long as paying out dividends remains the most important function of the Permanent Fund, Alaska will remain in its fiscal crisis.