Alaska is in a perfect political storm of trouble. We all know it’s due to the COVID-19 attack, oil and investments bottoming out, and people struggling with losses. It’s unclear how long this crisis will continue. Paying a PFD now in this financial hardship is the fastest and most efficient way to get money into Alaskans’ hands. But politicians haven’t approved this urgently needed lifeline. Instead of addressing fiscal problems for the public good, most of our leaders — elected to help — are making them worse.
The ship of state, our government, has lost direction. It has been drifting for years not addressing problems of deficits and declining revenues with reforms. The legislators failed to co-operate and act to make a sustainable fiscal plan. Instead of working together for solutions they are hijacking easy money, taxing the people’s PFD and savings. This endangers the Permanent Fund and our state. We urgently need a course correction from politicians. Our state is dangerously close to shipwreck on the fiscal cliff ahead in 2021.
In the current legislative session, there is strong support for paying the PFD now to help Alaskans and our economy. But, legislative leaders chose to defeat this vote. They said other benefits are on the way. However, with over 40,000 Alaskans filed for unemployment the system is overwhelmed. The State will not be able to immediately help all who apply. News stories report that Federal CARES money will not quickly reach all who apply, if at all. The Feds will not immediately provide aid for job losses and businesses closed by government mandates to protect public health.
Some legislators say “We can’t afford to pay the PFD,” as if the fund earnings are entirely for government. That is not the sole purpose of the Permanent Fund, established and owned by citizens. When Gov. Jay Hammond and I, along with others, founded the Fund, it was intended for savings to grow for future generations. The PFD was set up as a direct, equal benefit for Alaskans by law when earnings are available. Hammond said that if money was needed for services, government can “claw it back in taxes and fees”, not confiscate the PFD. The connection between the Fund and the people is maintained by the PFD. Policy leaders, like Dave Rose, former Director of the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp., have said the PFD is the reason why the Fund has grown, and not been looted and destroyed already. We can’t afford to not provide and protect the PFD.
The Spring PFD payment is not a partisan issue. Both former Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich and former Republican Gov. Sean Parnell joined forces in the media recently to call for the PFD payment now.
The truth is that paying the PFD is possible right away. The funds are available. There is a simple, ready process available to pay a minimum $1300. Legislators can vote through the online teleconferencing system. The 2019 PFD applications can be used to distribute funds for the most efficient and direct way to get money to residents.
Why are voters re-electing politicians who are damaging our wealth and trust? Many leaders refuse to consider every fiscal option on the table and involve the public in approving a fiscal plan. As savings are disappearing politicians will have to stop stalling. Start holding hearings and statewide surveys on all the options including: cuts, taxes, government efficiencies and consolidation, fair PFD formula, other new revenue, spending cap and constitutional amendments. The people of Alaska must approve what services are needed and how to pay for them. Spending down too much from savings accounts on government is theft from future generations and must stop.
I’ve been on boats most of my life, from enlisting in the Navy at 17 with the Seabees in WWII in Guadalcanal, to captain on commercial fishing vessels. And now at 94, ferrying my 65’ tugboat to Homer for a US mail contract for Halibut Cove. Any seafarer wants to survive a storm and find a safe harbor. That desire to find security is shared by many Alaskans who are struggling in these difficult times. Legislators, do what’s right. Pay the PFD now to help Alaskans get through this COVID crisis. Then, turn the Ship of State on a straight course to economic safety with a long-term fiscal plan, including reconnecting the PFD to the Fund in the Constitution to protect Alaskans.
• Clem Tillion of Halibut Cove is a retired commercial fisherman, a former 18-year Alaska state legislator and past Chair of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. He is currently Chairman of the Permanent Fund Defenders.