Alaskans urge lawmakers to not sink the Permanent Fund

In the three and a half hours it took to hear all the Alaskans offering public comments to the Alaska Legislature Thursday night, you could have watched the entire feature-length presentation of James Cameron’s “Titanic.”

The issue wasn’t a film blockbuster — it was a financial one for the state of Alaska, which is facing an annual deficit that moves closer to $4 billion with every day that the price of a barrel of oil stays below $30 on global markets. To fill roughly three-quarters of the deficit, Gov. Bill Walker has proposed using some earnings from Alaska’s $48 billion Permanent Fund.

That proposal, Senate Bill 128, was the subject of Thursday night’s hearing, which brought Alaskans a rare opportunity to speak to the Legislature after working hours. Hundreds of residents took that opportunity, with 109 signed up to speak by phone and another 217 submitting comments by email, according to counts provided by the Senate State Affairs Committee, which conducted the hearing.

While about 85 percent of comments were against the idea of using the Permanent Fund to balance the state budget, there wasn’t a great deal of consensus, said Sen. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, speaking Friday on the Senate floor.

“The message I got is people expect us to do something, and we have that imperative, but there’s a diversity of direction,” he said.

Those who spoke generally favored taxing nonresident workers instead of residents and urged the Legislature to cut spending first, before considering additional taxes or using Permanent Fund earnings.

He added that while lobbyists and others have been telling legislators that “this is what Alaskans think,” Thursday was the first opportunity to hear the “unfiltered message.”

“The element that has been really missing until last night was the public’s engagement,” he said Friday.

He added that there was only one clear and undeniable message from Thursday: “Gov. Hammond’s noble experiment of making the people the agents and protectors of the Permanent Fund was pretty successful.”

•••

This is a selection of excerpts from Thursday night testimony, presented in proportion to the number of similar messages given to lawmakers. Written testimony has been corrected for spelling, and excerpts were chosen to maintain the message, if not the length, of the original testimony.

• “This day came too quickly because of the excesses of government.” — Michael Chambers, Anchorage

• “Oil can go up to $150 per barrel in a heartbeat … I think you should have a provision in here just in case the price of oil changes.” — Joseph James, Pan American Industrial Commercial Enterprises, Anchorage

• “This is an extremely regressive move. … You’re essentially balancing the budget on the backs of ordinary people. … You cannot continue this spending machine … and funding it by taking away people’s Permanent Fund Dividend.” — Ray Kreig, Anchorage

• “To me, it seems like the governor wants to manage Alaskans’ budgets without managing the state’s budget.” — David Boyle, Anchorage

• “This is public money; I would like to see it used for public purposes before we start taxing. … We’ve had it very lucky; we’ve been spoiled.” — Chuck Stielstra, Anchorage

• “I want to commend the governor for introducing something as a starting point. … If people had some skin in the game … I think they’d take a lot more interest.” — Carl Burger, Bethel

• “I support SB 128 and the package that Gov. Walker is proposing to help bring some stability to the budget. … The longer we wait, the more we risk depleting our reserves and the harder it will be to bring some stability to our state budget.” — Nick Szabo, Kodiak

• “Everybody’s got to live within a budget, and that’s all I’ve got to say. Leave the dividend alone and no new taxes.” — George Smith, Anchorage

• “No part of the proceeds of the Permanent Fund should ever be directly appropriated by the Legislature or administration to ‘support public services.’” — Barrett Fletcher, Homer

• “A change in the PFD fund at this time is not necessary or the right thing to do. … Digging into the PFD will open up a chain of events (that) will end up with the citizens of Alaska not receiving any benefits from the natural resources of the state.” — Betty Carrington, Wasilla

• “If you can pull this off without getting tarred and feathered, I’ll congratulate you for the crime of the century.” — Pamela Goode, Deltana

• “No, no, no, no taxes, no touching the Permanent Dividend Fund, no, don’t keep spending money on government we don’t need … cut spending … cut government. Everyone I talk to agrees.” — Chris Lotti (location not given)

• “You guys are a joke (inclusive governor and legislators). First you spend your dividends, now you want to spend ours.” — Clarence Everingham, Wasilla

• “My name is Clifford A. Edenshaw, sixth-generation Tlingit/Haida since the Russian Orthodox began keeping records. I’d rather see the governor and state House and Senate liquidate the PFD to its citizens. — Clifford Edenshaw, Sitka

• “Remember once the government gets their foot in the door, it’s going to be a slippery slide downhill after that.” — David Webster

• “I wish to instruct state representatives to vehemently resist a state income tax, and I willingly forfeit all but $10 of my Permanent Fund to help pay deficits until times are better only. The purpose of the $10 is to keep all systems in place in the event of better times.” — Neal Cooper, Kodiak

• “Cut the budget!!! No messing with PFD!!!” — Rick Epling (location not given)

• “Please do not take our PFDs, we need those to help pay for heating and food. Alaska is expensive enough to live and people need their money.” — Ryan Schmidt (location not given)

• “We do not need further cuts! We need to raise revenues now!” — Frank Kelty, Unalaska

• “I listened to the governor’s speech to Alaska, and read and heard of his budget plan. I can’t agree with his proposal on how he wants to handle the Permanent Dividend Fund or having income tax. … My family has to budget according to our means. So do you.” — Lois Leto (location not given)

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