Open Letter to Alaskans
By Senator Bill Wielechowski
September 17, 2016
I’m writing this letter to speak directly to you, without the filter of the media or hearsay. Today [Friday], former Senators Clem Tillion, Rick Halford and I filed a lawsuit seeking to compel the Permanent Fund Corporation to transfer the amount necessary to pay all Alaskans a full PFD. We don’t take the decision to file a lawsuit to protect the PFD lightly, but after weeks of serious consideration and feedback from Alaskans, I feel that we must. I hope you take a few minutes to read this letter so you understand what led to my decision to file this lawsuit.
Our state is at a crossroads. We face a monumental task to move Alaska forward as we attempt to resolve our current fiscal crisis. We are also confronted with what could be one of the most important questions posed to us since statehood: what is the future of our Permanent Fund? This isn’t the first time Alaska has faced tough times, and it won’t be the last. It also isn’t the first time we’ve been pressured to use the Permanent Fund - to cut the dividend, “or else.” We weathered that storm without raiding the Fund, and we came out the other side stronger for it.
We’re filing this lawsuit today[Friday] because Alaska needs an answer. We need to know who decides the amount of the Dividend, a governor or the legislature? At a time when we are once again being asked to give up our Dividends, I think it’s critical that we look to the courts for resolution to this question now.
When I first ran for office in 2006, I had the opportunity to meet Jay Hammond. Many Alaskans were present for the creation of the Permanent Fund, and many should be thanked for shepherding the idea through the process, and for protecting the Fund ever since. But, the most basic idea of the fund, dedication of money from our mineral rights to a source which was to be constitutionally protected, was uniquely Governor Hammond’s. And Governor Hammond was protective of the Fund. He knew how special it was, and how strong the temptation would always be for government to look to the Fund first to solve Alaska’s fiscal problems.
In 1999, Alaskans voted in a special election on the question of whether to allow earnings from the Permanent Fund to be used for government spending. Why a special election? Because of the dire fiscal straits our state was enduring. Sound familiar? The debate today is much the same. In 1999, we saw our way out of that crisis without going to the Permanent Fund, and the people, not the Governor, directed that decision.
Hundreds of hours of research leads me to conclude that the Governor does not have the authority to cut Dividends in the way he proposes, and I’ll explain why. The resolution that created the Permanent Fund in 1976 was hotly debated in the legislature. Through many hours of research and listening to recordings of those conversations, it’s clear to me that the constitutional amendment that created the Permanent Fund was crafted to allow the legislature to determine how the income of the Permanent Fund was spent. The legislature enacted a law based on that constitutional directive which said that a transfer of money occurs to pay Dividends to the people of Alaska. Here’s the crux: the Governor cannot veto existing law. No governor can. His veto power extends only to appropriations and bills. The lawsuit we’re filing on behalf of the people of Alaska simply calls on the Permanent Fund Corporation to follow that existing law, and initiate the transfer.
The Permanent Fund Dividend means many different things to many different people. I’ve spent years working to protect both the Fund and the Dividend because of meeting people like Jay Hammond, Rick Halford, Clem Tillion and many other Alaskans who had a hand in crafting this legacy. The work they did to establish a Permanent Fund was meant to create a nest egg that would be just that: permanent. Our lawsuit today seeks to ensure that Alaskans continue to partake in their constitutionally guaranteed mineral rights accorded to them by the Dividend program, created by the legislature and enshrined into law in 1982. It’s as simple as that. If the Governor wants to change that process, he needs to go through the established procedures to achieve it.
There’s no doubt about the severity of the crisis Alaska currently faces. We need new revenue, or to dramatically shrink state government, and we need it within the next year or so. These are facts. But what’s critically important to remember about the Dividend is its spending power. During a fiscal crisis, the last thing we should be doing is pulling $700 million straight out of our economy, and that’s just what cutting the Dividend would do. There are other places we can cut, or raise new revenue that we must explore before we look to our most precious asset, the Permanent Fund. Also realize that paying out a full Dividend doesn’t mean that the legislature, along with the governor, can’t pass a law that allows for a small portion of the income to flow elsewhere. Dividends and protection of the Fund, though, must come first.
The PFD remains the most direct infusion of cash by Alaska into the economy. The best part? It’s spent by you, the people of Alaska, how you see fit. You make the decisions. And those decisions tie you to the state and to your government in a way that I think is extremely powerful and, again, special.
It’s been said a thousand times: Alaska is unique. But one of the things that defines us, that makes us the envy of the world, is our Permanent Fund. Our leaders had the wisdom to rise above politics and make the right decision to save money from a non-renewable resource and set it aside for the benefit of many generations. We simply can’t throw that work away with a single stroke of the pen. Alaskans deserve to know who sets their Dividend.
The support that I’ve received from Alaskans across the state has been humbling. I also hear from those of you who oppose the lawsuit. I believe this is a simple legal question and I hope that it’s resolved quickly so that we can move forward and chart a new course for our state. Please continue to let me know your thoughts, ideas, comments, and suggestions because every Alaskan has a stake in the answer to this question.
Senator Bill Wielechowski
Received September 16, 2016 - Published September 17, 2016
About: Senator Bill Wielechowski is a Democratic member of the Alaska State Senate Serving Anchorage Senate District H in the Alaska State Legislature (East Anchorage and Elmendorf Air Force Base )
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