It’s a bit ironic that the special legislative session to determine the size of our Permanent Fund Dividend will cost the state $1.3 million. It’s a high price tag to legislate how much money the state should pay us just for living here. One way to offset the cost is to reduce everyone’s dividend by about two dollars.
Relatively speaking, that’s no more than the pocket change we might drop into a collection jar for a worthy cause.
But even that little amount would upset people who don’t want any of the PFD going to fund state government. They’d say it’s not free money. The fund is our constitutionally created share of the state’s oil wealth.
Some might even argue that because they didn’t do their jobs, our elected representatives ought to cover the special session cost. It would be about $22,000 each, which is less than half of what former Gov. Bill Walker offered by way of a voluntary salary reduction two years ago.
Walker’s $48,000 pay cut didn’t happen though. The legislation he proposed to codify it never got out of committee. And I expect the two ideas I’ve suggested to pay for the special session wouldn’t even get that far.
But there’s a clue in Walker’s offer that’s worth examining further. Since his salary wasn’t reduced, he donated that amount to causes impacted by budget cuts. It went to fundraisers for drug detection K9s in Wasilla, Cordova and Yakutat.
The key word is donate. It’s a simple act already tied to the PFD via the Pick.Click.Give campaign. But rather than money, we could perform community service. It won’t solve the budget problem, but it would void the notion that the PFD is an entitlement.
According to a Foraker Group report I quoted a year ago, nonprofits operating in Alaska employ about 17 percent of the state’s work force. That’s two-thirds higher than the national average.
How they’re funded is a different story. The Chronicle of Philanthropy ranks Alaska households 28th in terms of financial donations. But we’re “generous” with our time, they report. About 37 percent of us volunteer for community service. That’s not just 11 percent more than the rest of the country. It means there’s an opportunity to encourage more participation.
So imagine that to earn the PFD, every qualified Alaskan over 14 years of age would be required to show they performed 50 hours of community service during the prior year. But unlike real volunteers, because it’s exchanged for a $1,600 to $3,000 PDF, the effective compensation would be $32 to $60 per hour.
Not getting something for nothing is a central argument against the latest liberal giveaway known as universal basic income. And interestingly enough, the PDF has been used to defend such proposals.
Writers at the Wall Street Journal, Vox and Vice.com all referred to the annual check as free money. Not in a derogatory way, but rather to argue a government granted entitlement doesn’t automatically translate into weakening the work ethic. But that also means most people are willing to work a little more when times are tough.
The idea of working to earn the PDF is entirely consistent with the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Ac that Congress passed in 1996. That law imposed a requirement for welfare recipients to find employment within two years of receiving benefits. A similar plan is being considered to move able bodied people receiving Medicaid into the workforce.
Like any program involving the transfer of money between the government and its citizens, the difficult part would be crafting laws that everyone agrees are necessary and fair. Defining community service could be contentious. Justifiable exemptions for some people will leave loopholes for others. And an enforcement mechanism to prevent fraud will be needed. It’s a prescription for more regulations and new bureaucratic jobs. And the need for more revenue, which is already part of the problem.
The idea may very well be unrealistic. But if we’re unwilling to devise a method to legitimately claim we earn our PFD, then we can’t rightly criticize lawmakers who want to reduce it. Because they’d be choosing not to lay off people who actually work for the checks they get from our state treasury.
• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector. He contributes a weekly “My Turn” to the Juneau Empire.