What’s more important, a big permanent fund dividend or more teachers in public school classrooms? How about better road maintenance, or a stronger law enforcement presence, or a fully staffed court system, or the ability for Fish and Game to conduct adequate research?
A number of budget proposals are being vetted by the Legislature, and nearly all of them have, in some form, “preserving the dividend” as a selling point. Yet just about every public agency looking at cuts that significantly impact the ability to perform its functions.
Our question is this: Does it really make sense to promise to put dollars in Alaskans’ pockets if it means every other service provided by state government is slashed?
Certainly, it’s one of those hard decisions we’ve been talking about over the past year, and the question doesn’t have an easy answer. For many Alaskans, the annual dividend check is a nice bonus, spent on vacations of flat-screen TVs or new skis. Others put their PFD check into savings, or donate a portion to nonprofit organizations. But many people rely on it as part of their income, helping to pay the bills.
However, we’re clearly past the point where the state needs help paying the bills, too. Good schools, well-maintained infrastructure, and efficient government agencies are crucial not just to Alaska’s present, but also to Alaska’s future.
As the Legislature works through the various budget proposals, there likely will be a fair amount of feedback, from the public and from individual lawmakers, not to touch the dividend, that Alaskans can spend their dividend better than the government can.
In a different fiscal climate, we might agree. But the state’s spending priorities have been and should remain education, public safety, transportation and infrastructure, and economic development. For a long time, Alaska has been able find other ways to foot the bill, leaving money available for dividends. That’s no longer the case.
We don’t want to lose the dividend program. It provides an economic boost to our communities, and in many cases, helps Alaskans get by — but it shouldn’t be a budget priority. It doesn’t make sense to promise the annual payments if we can’t promise any of the other things that government needs to do.