The deadline to apply for the Permanent Fund Dividend is fast approaching, and every year some Alaskans let that deadline slip through their fingers. But not everyone who fails to file for a slice of the state's resource bounty simply forgets. Sometimes, it’s a matter of principle.
The Permanent Fund Dividend was voted in as a constitutional amendment in 1976. The first legislation sought to give Alaskans $50 for every year of residency, but that program was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1980. In response to that ruling, an equal dividend was authorized, and the first dividend check was distributed in June 1982.
In the years since, the PFD has become an institution for Alaska residents. Car dealerships, airlines and retail stores ramp up PFD sales every October to entice residents to spend their money. Yet with all the hubbub and ensuing celebration, people still neglect to file.
“Every year, people call and say ‘I forgot,’” said Dan DeBartolo, director of the PFD division. “It’s going to start happening Monday.”
Last year, 673,978 PFD applications were filed, more than 80 percent of which were filed online. Of those, 610,633 applications were approved and paid. While the division doesn’t track how many eligible Alaskans neglect to file, those who do offer “all kinds” of excuses, DeBartolo said.
Last year’s dividend was $878, a relatively small payout compared to recent years. Forty-two percent of filers in 2012 were born in Alaska, and the oldest person to receive a dividend was an astounding 107 years old. Even with the small payout, some $564.6 million was distributed in 2012. There’s no word yet on how much 2013’s dividend will be, DeBartolo said. Those calculations are completed in late August.
You can file for your PFD on the first day of the calendar year. Some people file as soon as possible -- nearly 20 percent of all applicants filed in the first week of 2012. Others wait until the last minute. Twelve percent of all applicants filed in the last week before the cut-off, 11:59 p.m. on March 31.
Some Alaskans succumb to procrastination and forget to file. Monique Musick, University of Alaska photographer, missed out on the 2008 dividend that included the additional $1,200 fuel rebate added by then-Gov. Sarah Palin. “The form was filled out, but I woke up April 1 and realized I had not mailed it. Uuugh..... very bad April Fools Day that year!” Musick wrote.
Greta Johnsen, now a reporter at WBEZ public radio station in Chicago, made a different mistake in 2008. She thought the deadline was flexible. “I really didn’t think it was going to be all or nothing on that one day,” she said. But her hopes of filing late were dashed after a phone call and visit to the PFD office. It was “totally my fault,” Johnsen said. She made applying a priority afterwards.
James Waldo, legislative aide for Alaska representative Lindsey Holmes, forgot to file in 2005. He called the experience an “eye-opener. I couldn’t tell you why I didn’t apply for it other than that I was irresponsible,” he said. “The very next year, I applied the very first day.”
Not everyone forgets to file, though. For some, it’s a matter of principle. Writer Jim Sweeney has only filed for a handful of PFDs during his 30 years of eligibility. The idea of the cash payout “seemed wrong to me originally,” he said. “Isn’t there something better we could spend it on? How about an education for any kid that wants one?”
More important for rural Alaskans
Sweeney believes that the money could be better spent on health care, community centers and education, pointing out that many people simply go out and buy consumer products like widescreen TVs. He also thinks the money is more important for people living in rural areas, where the cost of living is far higher than in Anchorage, Alaska's largest city.
What about people living on the edge of poverty, to whom the PFD is potentially a large sum? “I believe people need help, but I don’t know that handing them $800 to spend is the way to do it,” Sweeney said.
Still, most Alaskans who have not yet filed will likely be racing to file in these last few days. To file for your PFD, head to the division website to file online. Information on how to mail your application in is there, too.
Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com