After widespread public backlash that led Gov. Mike Dunleavy to reverse some of his highest profile, least popular vetoes, it’s understandable that the governor is seeking to salvage a key plank of his agenda: A “full” Permanent Fund dividend under the 1982 formula. In service of that goal, he has said he will call the Legislature back into a third special session for a supplemental PFD of about $1,400. But the Legislature has done its job. It shouldn’t be strong-armed into cutting a second PFD check that will result in a budget deficit of close to a billion dollars. Legislative leaders should gavel in and out of the third special session on its first day, saving the state any further per diem costs and avoiding a debate that boils down to whether we’re entitled to yet another check that will further deplete state savings.
Even a $3,000 PFD is less than Dunleavy told Alaskans he planned on ensuring as a candidate in 2018. He said repeatedly that he would pay back amounts cut from past dividends by former Gov. Bill Walker and the Legislature, a sum that totaled about $3,733 per eligible Alaskan. Dividend payments of $3,000 are irresponsible given the state’s fiscal condition, and payments of more than $6,000 would be absurd.
Respect for the PFD statute is well and good, providing you ignore the fact that the Legislature’s spending plan under 2018′s Senate Bill 26 (another PFD statute) has the same weight and you can’t abide by both. But Alaskans have spoken out throughout the budget process, and most have said that when push comes to shove, they are willing to see a smaller PFD as spending levels are thoughtfully reduced, rather than continuing to harm Alaska’s fragile economy with poorly a poorly planned slash-and-burn approach.
They have said that as Alaskans, we make sacrifices so that we can ensure that our state remains a good place for us to live, for our children to learn and for our parents to grow old. The Legislature heard them, and made budget choices that reflected that sentiment — balancing substantial necessary cuts with the preservation of core government functions, as outlined by the Alaska Constitution. Gov. Dunleavy appeared to hear that message too, choosing not to veto some of his initial targets — senior benefits, the University of Alaska, early childhood education — a second time. But now he wants to pay out a big PFD, too, and deplete the account dividends are paid from to do it. That’s short-sighted, and it doesn’t acknowledge Alaska’s fiscal reality.
The governor and legislative leaders have both indicated that it’s time to have a conversation about the formula for the dividend. They’re right. Our state can’t afford the same pattern of punting on a long-term plan to balance the budget that it has followed since 2015. But the time for that discussion was during this year’s regular session, not during a costly third special session that might overlap with the issuing of the dividend check itself. The governor and Legislature blame each other for not coming to the table during the last legislative session. The fact is they both dropped the ball, and they must not make the same mistake next year, because our state cannot afford it.
What Alaska also cannot afford is a billion-dollar draw on its savings after the budget process is already over and Alaskans are already about to get a dividend check that is more than $400 in excess of the average payment for the past 37 years. The additional $1,400 payment Gov. Dunleavy wants would come directly out of the account which will pay dividends in future years, reducing its ability to generate additional funds. Just like paying a penalty to cash out your retirement early, we would be robbing our future selves — and, more than that, our children.
If Gov. Dunleavy and the Legislature really want to do right by current and future Alaskans, and they feel like moving a billion dollars out of the Permanent Fund earnings reserve is the way to do it, there is one way they could be helpful: Transfer that money to the constitutionally protected corpus of the fund. There, it would generate revenue for dividend checks, services or some combination of the two, and be permanently protected from lawmakers who would seek to spend it for short-term political benefit.