On June 29th, we witnessed something unheard of in Alaska. For the first time in state history, a sitting governor asserted the power to unilaterally determine the value of the PFD, or whether he would even permit there to be a PFD at all. If he can get away with it, it is an absolute stroke of political brilliance. For those who say, “but wait, he is only changing the PFD from $2,200 to $1,000”, just think about this a moment. If the governor will now have the power to reduce the PFD to $1,000, why not $100, why not 50¢, why not $0? Politically speaking, the power that the governor has now asserted represents a monumental shift.
The next time the governor doesn’t get his way, or doesn’t feel like the people are sufficiently supportive of his policies (wanna buy a gasline anyone?), all he has to do is ask us if we want a PFD this year. That alone should be more than sufficient to get a flurry of calls to the legislature in support of whatever proposal of his is bogged down in the legislature. And many of those calls would be from those who can least afford to have their PFD slashed or taken away; from those on fixed incomes, from the villages, from those who are barely able to make ends meet as it is. Ah, but the governor would never actually do that, would he?
I think the question is whether he would even have to. In times past we spoke of having the oil companies over a barrel. Now it would be our turn. The thing about political power is that it rarely goes unused. Even without public threats or visible demonstrations, that power is still felt and will have a profound effect on political discourse going forward. And even if one governor decides not to use the full extent of his power, that says nothing about what will happen once a governor is elected (or reelected) when that power is already on the books.
But I have reason to believe that we will not need to wait long to see how this plays out. Just yesterday I, and every other legislator and candidate, noted the formal press release from the governor, in which he threatened to bring voters against any candidate who does not support “The Governor’s New Alaska Plan” or his “Permanent Fund Restructure Plan”. He will accept no answer but support for his plan(s), and he will use every bit of his power as governor to get it, even when doing so earns him ethics complaints for threatening legislative candidates on official stationery, paid for by the taxpayers.
Our elected representatives in the legislature now have a choice to make. It’s the same choice they make every time they go down to Juneau. Are they willing to see themselves as expendable for the sake of something greater than their political careers, or is getting re-elected the box in which they live and move and find their personal meaning?
As an Army officer, when I took soldiers into a combat zone, I knew that the mission was larger than any one of us. And while I offered prayers of thanks each time we returned to Alaska from an overseas deployment, it did not change the fact that our state and our nation would have carried on if one of us had fallen.
If one of us had been taken prisoner by the Taliban, it would have been unthinkable that the President would hand the keys to the city over to terrorists in exchange for a single soldier. To be expendable does not diminish the value of your life or service, it puts it up against the lives and families of those you are fighting to protect, and says that their lives and freedom are worth your sacrifice, if it comes to that.
Alaska State Law: The Facts This year’s PFD is expected to be in the neighborhood of $2,200. That is, if the State Dept. of Revenue follows state law as set forth in AS 43.23.025. The calculation of the PFD is set in statute, and is therefore determined by state law. If the Dept. of Revenue does not follow the law, each of us will rightly be able to say that we were robbed by our own government.
When it was created by the legislature, and signed into law by Gov. Hammond, the PFD was never intended to be included as a budget item, or contingent on passage of the state budget. Initially, state budgets reflected this truth and did not pretend, symbolically or otherwise, to reauthorize distribution of the PFD each year. This is because the PFD is not an appropriation from the General Fund. By law, it is paid from the Dividend Fund, over which the governor has no authority. Even the legislature does not have the ability to alter the PFD calculation without first approving the change in each legislative chamber and then securing the approval of the governor, following the same process required of every revision to state law.
What this means is that the Governor has not “cut” anything, except the law. And if he directs the Dept. of Revenue to ignore state law in distributing less than the full amount of the dividend in October, then he should be held to account for directing a state agency to violate state law. The full amount of the PFD is owed to every eligible Alaskan, with a date set in statute by which it is to be paid (according to AS 43.23.055(2) that date is December 31, 2016).
Again, state law does not simply permit the PFD to be distributed, at the discretion of the governor. AS 43.23.055(2) declares: “The department shall annually pay permanent fund dividends from the dividend fund”. And to obstruct timely payment of that amount is no less theft than spending it for some unauthorized purpose.
If you are like my family, your PFD is included in the family budget, just as it is a significant part of the budget for the many businesses throughout our state who target sales, promotions, or loans based on the timely distribution of the PFD. Would Americans sit by if Obama told the IRS not to issue tax refunds this year “because the government needed the money”? I think not.
Such an action would be rightly seen as government theft of personal property owed to its rightful owner. An IRS promise to include it with next year’s refund, does nothing for this year’s family or company budget, or the rent, mortgage, car insurance, and other expenses that still have to come out of that budget this year. People are always hurt when government fails in its obligations. And when you have debts to pay, as many Alaskans and small businesses do, not having the money to pay them can lead to terrible consequences.
And where is our legislature in all this? Have they followed the example of America’s founders and opposed “with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people?” No? According to the news, the question this week is whether they will even take a vote on whether to oppose the governor’s raid on the PFD. And why is that?
I believe it is because those who have been in the legislature for the last decade or more (and specifically, the Republican Majority Caucus), know that they have voted for each and every unsustainable budget that brought us to the place in which we find ourselves today. The governor is clearly wrong today, but a nearly equal share falls on those Republican legislators who have placed their political careers over voting against the very same unsustainable budgets that they now tell us they oppose.
In recent years, Rep. Reinbold has stood alone among her Republican colleagues in voting against budgets that were clearly unsustainable. For that vote, she was removed from the majority caucus and two of her staffers were laid off. Today, her colleagues clamor about protecting the PFD, the very same PFD that they put in jeopardy by going along with, and giving their support to, budgets that they knew were unsustainable—year, after year, after year.
In the situation in which we find ourselves today, there is only one way to protect the PFD from attack. That is to hold our governor accountable for his actions, and to hold our legislators accountable for theirs. And if you vote to send them back to Juneau for another term, do so knowing that past behavior is often an excellent predictor of future behavior—only next time we won’t just be talking about a $1,000 PFD. Before too long, that discussion will shift to the permanent fund itself.
David Eastman is a firefighter in Wasilla, a former military police officer on JBER, and a candidate for the Alaska State House in District 10.