JUNEAU - Most Alaska residents will soon be getting a check for $1,174 simply because they live there.
Each person's share of the state's vast oil wealth was announced with much fanfare in Anchorage Tuesday, with Gov. Sean Parnell ripping open a gold-colored envelope to reveal the number. This day is so widely anticipated in Alaska that the announcement of the Permanent Fund Dividend amount was carried live on television statewide, and dozens tuned in to watch a live webcast by the governor's office.
This year's check is the smallest since 2006 and $107 less than last year's amount, which was $1,281. Parnell warned the amount could diminish more in the future, given market volatilities and the fact that oil production in the state is declining. Nonetheless, he called this year's amount "healthy."
State Revenue Commissioner Bryan Butcher said 647,549 Alaskans were deemed eligible to receive dividends, and about $760.2 million is expected to be paid out. Most Alaskans will get their dividends by direct deposit Oct. 6; the rest will receive checks in the mail.
The 2010 U.S. Census put Alaska's population at 710,231.
Already, Alaskans are making plans for how they'll use their dividends, from paying bills to putting the money toward a new car to buying sled dogs. Retailers are advertising "PFD" sales. So is Alaska Airlines, whose offer is popular in a state where few communities are connected to a road system and the cost of going to the nearest city to shop - or just get away - adds up fast.
While the extra money is a great perk, it doesn't always go far in a state where some rural residents pay $7 or more a gallon for gasoline and one study showed food costs for a week could run into the hundreds of dollars for a family of four.
Vern Weiss owns Moochers Bar and Grill in Nenana, a community of about 380 people 55 miles southwest of Fairbanks. He said he spends about the amount of last year's check in a week on food and beverages for his business. Still, every bit helps. The economy in that area is tough, and he said he has barely been able to make sure his employees are paid. A dividend check, he said, can help pay a lot of little bills.
Voters passed a constitutional amendment in 1976 to establish the Permanent Fund as a way to stretch out the state's oil wealth for future generations. At the time, Alaska had just experienced a construction boom spurred by a $900 million bonus payment from energy companies for oil discoveries.
Today, state government relies heavily on oil revenues to run, and most Alaska residents receive a dividend check; people have to live in the state for a year to be eligible to apply. The amount of investment earnings allocated to dividends is based on a five-year rolling average of the permanent fund's performance.
The market hit from the U.S. recession and ensuing economic slump are factored into the most recent period.
Still, Tuesday was "a happy day for Alaskans," Butcher said.
State labor department economist Neal Fried said there's no question the dividend has an impact on Alaska's economy but he's seen no research to quantify just how big the bump is. The way people treat their dividends likely varies with their individual circumstances and even how long they've been getting the extra money, he said.
Butcher, who used to work at the Alaska Housing Finance Corp., said October tended to be the month when many people caught up with mortgage payments.
Parnell said one of his great duties as governor is being able to announce the annual dividend, calling it a "unique duty that 49 other governors likely wish they had." He said he and his wife, Sandy, would likely put their dividends toward the cost of college for their two daughters.
Last year, $783.4 million was paid to 611,522 people, according to the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend Division. The fund ended the recent fiscal year with a balance of $40.1 billion.
Alaskans received their largest dividend - $2,069 - in 2008, according to the dividend division. In 2006, the dividend was $1,106.96.
Bosco Olson Sr., city administrator of Hooper Bay, said dividend announcement day is like Christmas, with the town's 1,100 residents patiently waiting and excited.
Olson, whose town is about 500 miles west of Anchorage, said he's considering using his dividend for a new lead dog or two for his sled dog team.