(Juneau Empire file photo)

Opinion: Alaska House makes the right decision on constitutionally guaranteed PFD

The Permanent Fund dividend is important to a lot of Alaska households, but so is education, public safety, ports and harbors, roads and more.

The state House did the right thing last week in rejecting a proposed constitutional amendment that would have elevated the PFD to a higher status than any other need in the state.

Yes, Alaskans have to find a solution to the annual divisive, debilitating, political fight over the amount of the dividend. It has become worse than a distraction; it’s become an obstruction that prevents elected officials and the public from confronting the state’s pressing problems of inadequate housing, lack of child care services and a growing shortage of new residents and workers.

But guaranteeing a dividend in the constitution is not the answer or even an answer to the problems. Even worse, adding the exalted PFD to the constitution denigrates the importance of everything else that the founders — and the public — thought important when they adopted the document almost 70 years ago.

The constitution says the state shall maintain a public school system and a university, and shall promote and protect public health.

The right to privacy “shall not be infringed.”

The state’s natural resources shall be “available for maximum use consistent with the public interest.”

Putting the dividend on equal footing with those defining provisions is not a solution to the annual political fight over the amount of the payment. Rather, it would create problems for generations to come as Alaskans find they cannot afford everything they want, but the constitution says the dividend takes precedence.

The House fell five votes short of the two-thirds majority required to put the amendment on the ballot for voters. Yet that doesn’t mean the fight is over. Lawmakers still need to settle on an amount for this year’s PFD and then every year until they can agree on a financially responsible formula.

There are several good proposals in the House and Senate, such as legislation that would allocate 25% of the annual draw on the Permanent Fund investment earnings to the dividend and 75% to public services, which is the formula used last year with a $1,312 PFD. Another bill would set the dividend at a flat $1,000 a year. Both are affordable for a state that should be spending money on so many other needs of its residents and communities.

Someday, legislators and the governor need to find a workable dividend calculation. Keeping it out of the constitution was a good start.

• Larry Persily is the publisher of the Wrangell Sentinel.

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