Distrust currently at heart of debate on best use of fund

Posted: Sunday, January 25, 2004

The current debate over the appropriate role of the Alaska Permanent Fund in the state's budget is not so much about dollars or the future as it is about trust.

Or, more accurately, distrust.

Alaskans, so far, don't trust each other to do the right thing on this issue. That's unfortunate because Alaska and Alaskans have everything to gain if they decide this together and everything to lose, if they don't.

On one side, there are those who characterize any and every effort to use a portion of the earnings of the permanent fund to help pay for the cost of state government as an attempt to rob Alaskans of their permanent fund dividend checks and grow government.

Overnight, it seems, those people elected to office "by the people" become enemies "of the people." They're described as thieves who want to steal Alaskans' sacred cow, the annual dividend check.

On the other side, there are those who see use of permanent fund earnings as the least painful option to bridge the gap between Alaska's spending and its income. With Gov. Frank Murkowski saying "no" to an income tax and the Legislature saying "no" to a sales tax, using fund earnings to help pay for necessary state services seems the responsible thing to do to them.

Some in this camp have described the other side as greedy and short-sighted, caring more about their own pocketbooks than the future of the state.

Some elected officials are trying to stay out of the fray. While the Legislature currently has the authority to use part of the permanent fund earnings with a simple majority vote, they are afraid to do anything without Alaskans' approval. To do otherwise could mean they might lose their elected position.

That's why Gov. Frank Murkowski's "Conference of Alaskans" is a good idea. The conference, being modeled after the Statehood Convention, will bring 55 Alaskans together over the course of three days in Fairbanks in February to offer a recommendation on what role permanent fund income should play in the state's future.

The conference holds the potential to take the politics out of this debate and focus it on the future well-being of the state. It will go a long way toward answering the question: What is the best course of action to give Alaska an economically viable future?

It's our hope the conference will replace the rancor and rhetoric of the current debate with respect for all Alaskans' ideas. For the conference to be most effective, Alaskans need to suspend their judgment and be willing to hear what comes out of the conference and why.

As Alaskans anticipate the conference and continue to discuss the role of the permanent fund, it's appropriate to revisit comments made during the "Principles and Interests" project led by the Alaska Humanities Forum several years ago. The project, which was birthed with the fund's 20th anniversary, focused on the fund's "founding and evolving principles, and its purposes and objectives." The project included a public policy conference in Anchorage in November of 1997, town meetings across the state in March and April of 1998 and a statewide radio call-in program in June of 1998. Comments coming from those discussions are as timely today as they were then:

Andrew Hacker, keynote speaker at the November 1997 conference and author of "Money: Who Has How Much and Why": "The positions Alaskans take on the dividend are ultimately less economic than moral. Their views convey to others and themselves the manner of people they are. But how they conceive their self-interest also provides Alaskans with an opportunity to show how they wished to be measured in the chronicles of history."

Kelly Haney, a life-long Alaskan: "I think there's a great need for an education endowment fund, and I don't know whether that money should come from the permanent fund earnings or not. ... (B)ut we have a problem in this state where we have, supposedly, a fiscal gap yet each citizen is handed over $1,000 each year. We can't appropriately fund education, we can't appropriately fund health and human resources, and we can't build a jail."

Mano Frey, an Alaska labor leader: "The problem that we have now is that we are both the poorest and richest of states. We're the poorest primarily because of perception, because many of the politicians have talked about the bloated state budget for so long that people believe it. It's not a matter of reducing the state budget; it's a matter of allocating those funds that are available in (the) most sensible fashion, including some of the earnings of the permanent fund."

Jonathon Lack, an Anchorage attorney: "I think we've got a problem much bigger than the permanent fund. We've got a problem dealing with each other, and that is the basis of all the problems we have in Alaska. Too many times we are backbiting, making crude statement's about other people's views, not having an intellectual debate of the issues, and not respecting that there can be two right answers to a question. If we're going to address the permanent fund issue ..., we need to start working together with each other in a respectful manner and until we have that, there are going to be no answers to any questions."

Margy Johnson, mayor of Cordova: "... I want everybody to realize that you can't build a community with no money. It's simply impossible. We need to give the fund a public purpose, and then bring the government to the people."

If the governor's Conference of Alaskans can get Alaskans working together on this difficult issue of the best role of the permanent fund and help restore respect to and for the governmental process, it may be the best investment the state has ever made.

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