Alaskans and their elected officials haven't reached a consensus on how big a role the $61 billion Permanent Fund should play in fixing the state's huge deficit.
But one thing that's not under dispute is that Alaskans are getting smaller dividends this year. The Legislature, citing the budget crisis, decided to break from its decades-old tradition of calculating the payments with a legal formula tied to investment returns.
Instead, lawmakers set the dividend at $1,100.
How much did that decision cost each Alaskan?
Gov. Bill Walker's administration didn't calculate what dividends would have been if lawmakers had stuck to the historical formula.
But Alaska Dispatch News ran the numbers. The dividend would have been about $2,350 if lawmakers had stuck to the legal, historical formula, which accounts for a five-year average of the fund's investment returns.
A separate calculation by the Legislature's own budget analysts estimated that the dividend would have been $2,290 — lower than the ADN calculation because the Legislature's projection anticipated the payments would be divided among more than the 640,000 eligible recipients announced by Walker's administration last week. When the Legislature's staff used the same number of recipients as Alaska Dispatch News, the two projections were virtually equal.
The Legislature's decision this year to forgo the historical formula means the state will spend about $670 million on dividends, instead of the roughly $1.5 billion that would have been budgeted before. The extra cash will remain in the Permanent Fund's earnings reserve account and could be used by lawmakers as soon as next year to cover the state's budget gap.
This year was the second straight that the dividend was sliced roughly in half. Walker last year used his line-item veto to cut the dividend — a move that the Alaska Supreme Court upheld in a unanimous decision last month.
Critics have argued that lawmakers should make deeper cuts to state government or raise taxes on oil companies before turning to the Permanent Fund to help fill deficits. But supporters of the reduced dividend argue that the oil-wealth fund is one of policymakers' best tools for filling the multibillion-dollar hole in Alaska's budget.