Alaskans are near the midpoint of their window to apply for 2017 Permanent Fund dividends, ahead of an easy-to-miss March 31 deadline — and state officials say now is a good time to sign up.
As of Friday morning, the state Department of Revenue's PFD website counted about 255,000 online dividend applications filed since the three-month application period opened Jan. 1.
Anne Weske, the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend Division's operations manager, said Thursday that this year's tally is about 25,000 applications behind the pace Alaskans had set by this week in 2016. Online filings typically represent about 80 percent of all dividend applications.
Last year, more than 643,000 Alaskans received $1,022 dividends, reduced from an original total of $2,052 after Gov. Bill Walker vetoed part of the legislative transfer of money meant to pay for them. Walker said at the time that the move was necessary to preserve the future of the dividend, but was criticized by the state House's Republican majority for taking "money from Alaskans' pockets."
State Sen. Bill Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat, sued the state seeking to restore the full dividend, but Superior Court Judge William Morse rejected the suit in November. Wielechowski has since appealed the matter to the Alaska Supreme Court.
In addition to applications, Weske said charitable donations through the division's Pick. Click. Give. program were also down, from close to 25,000 pledges totaling nearly $1.6 million as of the second week of February last year to almost 18,000 pledges coming in at just under $1.1 million this year.
"At this point last year, people didn't know that the dividend amount was going to be reduced," Weske said last week.
In 2016, the division set a maximum pledge of $2,000 per dividend for Pick. Click. Give donations. Some people pledged that maximum before the dividend was reduced, Weske said, but the division automatically capped donations to the program at the lower amount.
"We only take what they've got," Weske said. "This year we didn't know what would happen, so we capped giving at $1,000 just in case."
Weske said the division has been monitoring PFD-related activity in the Legislature, but hasn't made any plans for the possibility of paying no dividend in 2017. Lawmakers have also approached the division about other hypotheticals, including whether it could pay out the amount by which 2016's checks were reduced along with this year's dividend.
"We don't spend a whole lot of time speculating what might happen to the overall program," Weske said. "We basically wait for solid direction from our commissioner."
People have been taking an average of about seven minutes to apply for a dividend online, Weske said, after staff streamlined the system for this year. The lull in applications means that help by phone is readily available, along with staff at the division's offices in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau.
"It's really a great time to come," Weske said. "If (residents) try to file in the last few days, there's going to be hold times of about an hour in Anchorage or wait times of one to two hours at the Anchorage office."
Weske urged Alaskans to read any emails sent to them by the division, which has moved many communications online to reduce an annual postage bill of more than $100,000.
A pamphlet on the application process, containing detailed contact information for the three division offices, says staff will accept hand-delivered applications during weekday business hours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. through March 31. Paper applications can only be picked up at various locations statewide and mailed to the division, at P.O. Box 110642, Juneau, AK 99811, with postmarks from Jan. 1 through March 31.
Procrastinators filing online have until 11:59 p.m. on March 31 to do so — but the division warns that online applications will only count once the website provides a confirmation number.
"The website will shut down at 12 a.m. April 1," state officials wrote. "Applications in progress at cutoff will not be accepted."