I want to start a dialogue about the Permanent Fund dividend and the state of Alaska’s foreseeable budget conundrum. Sadly, no politician wants to publicly talk about the future of the dividend. At this point in time talk in the media has only dared to peek just over the horizon at the Permanent Fund itself. The recent fall in oil prices has a silver lining: The presaging of our state’s financial future so that we can adjust our expectations and assume the responsibility that citizens should own, if only we had the courage. The conversation needs to be imposed on our elected officials to allow them to comfortably talk about this in the light of day. Our representatives in Juneau should be forced into this conversation.
For as long as I have owned a home, which is nearly as old as the PFD itself, I have looked upon my PFD as partially, if not wholly, paying my property taxes. It’s not mad fun money. That’s just me. My proposal is about displacing some of the responsibility from the state providing me services and shift it to a local level, be it a school district, a municipal, borough, or tribal government. In this allocation plan, the recipient entity must be a registered political body acknowledged by the state. So, how about tribes? I think tribes count in this equation. Charities? Nonprofit organizations? Not in my equation. Why? Not broad-based enough, and not controlled by an election process.
To those who argue for a means-tested distribution of the PFD, I can see a short road to a dead end for this proposal; that is just welfare and not something to encourage. To those who argue that they live in Alaska and that the PFD just makes it bearable, or by simply being an Alaskan they are entitled to it, I say by quoting George Will, “The entitlement mentality produces petulant insistence on an ever higher ratio of rights to responsibilities.” Exercise some responsibility at home to your schools, your city, borough, your tribe and build your community up from within and sustain it. Don’t let your representatives and a distant government in Juneau dictate all the bacon that gets brought home. Take control of it (the dividend) before the control is taken from you. I can only hope that a PFD allocation plan will take considerable pressure off the Legislature to fund a plethora of perceived needs and allow them to focus on statewide issues, a natural gas line for instance.
Would this constitute a tax? I think of it as an investment in my community, but I do expect the initial knee-jerk perception that it will invoke in others. Executing a tax system is costly, and for the small populations of many of our cities and boroughs, it outweighs the benefits and makes no sense.
I look at this PFD allocation as a way to not have a tax collection system. I look at this PFD allocation as a means to aggregate funds to make deliberate and thoughtful improvements we tend to enjoy together at a local level, but could never fund
on our own, nor expect from Juneau. Some would call it a head tax. Okay, but at least to some degree you get to allocate where it goes. If you are from Tanana and live in Anchorage, you could send your allocation to Huslia if you wanted to. Don’t think children should have to participate? I disagree, but that is an open question in my mind. Alternatively, children (their parents) could be required to allocate to a scholastic trust account for college or trade education for their sole use, to use accordingly or forfeit to one of the registered entities.
I cannot anticipate the federal tax implications of this plan, but I suspect that the transference of these monies from state Permanent Fund to coffers of a city, borough, tribe etc. would invoke no personal income tax. You never touch the money. Thus the full value of the money stays in Alaska and gets put to productive use.
For 36 years I have been exposed to the wide expanse of Alaska and its peoples in my careers as a geologist and engineer. I have worked closely with rural Alaska city and tribal governments for 12 years trying to improve sanitation. You get close to people when you have to talk about sanitation. I have witnessed the struggle to buy fuel, pay water treatment plant and sanitation workers, pay for proper administrative and legal services, to maintain roads, buildings, pipelines, and docks, have running water or just to keep the lights and heat on. No snowmachine, boat motor, or flat screen TV fixes any of that. These things also don’t fix a school roof, potholes and drainage ditches, provide parks, or clear and resurface streets in a major metropolitan area either. Raising property taxes to repay perpetually appearing municipal bond initiatives is not a responsible way to fund solutions to all of these recurrent problems -- we just get numb to the debt. In rural Alaska, they mostly do without, or get intermittent assistance directly or indirectly from the state or federal government.
PFD fraud? Talk about a way to minimize PFD fraud and the associated costs of investigating and prosecuting this crime; what criminal in their right mind would commit fraud when the initial outcome is an allocation of the PFD to a registered entity recognized in the state of Alaska?
Folks, I have proposed a radical idea for the use of this unusual bounty we receive. We should not deceive ourselves that lawmakers will solve this budget problem on their own or to our liking. We need to help by having civil conversation on constructive ideas and take the discussion to the Legislature and allow them to discuss it without recrimination. Maintaining a death grip on the PFD, calling it a right, is just kicking the can down the road to ruin.
Roger Burleigh is a geologist, engineer and 36-year resident of Alaska .
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com .