Gov. Frank Murkowski has taken a step important for Alaska: His decision to create a broad panel to consider how, or whether, the Alaska Permanent Fund should help pay the cost of state government.
The question is an old one, but the approach is new.
For years, legislators and governors have done a lot of talking about using the permanent fund as a way to help close the recurring budget shortfalls, but politics and the fear of electoral punishment have for the most part kept the idea short of fruition.
Numerous bipartisan commissions have recommended using money from the permanent fund as one element of a fiscal solution, with cuts, broad-based taxes and resource development the other major pillars. Yet the idea continues to languish.
The governor's approach appears to be an attempt to gain permanent fund access by reconciling several realities: that state budgets in coming years will need the money; that the public, as demonstrated in the lopsided 1999 vote against using the fund, is supremely distrustful of efforts to use the fund; and that elected officials, who naturally wish to continue in office, lack the fortitude to use earnings of the permanent fund without public approval even though approval is not required.
By instigating the creation of a 55-person panel, which will meet in Fairbanks Feb. 10-12, the governor brings the necessary debate back into the living rooms of Alaskans.
The governor wants the group, whose members are still being chosen, to consider four questions: Should a ''percent of market value'' plan be adopted by the fund, thereby making the amount of money available to the state more predictable than at present; should some of the fund's income be used to pay for state services; should the Legislature decide how to spend the money or should some uses such as the dividend, as the Democrats have proposed, be locked in the constitution; and should the state keep some money in its budget reserve.
This panel's work, the public is being told, will not end up on a shelf at the Legislative Information Office. Gov. Murkowski hopes to write the panel's recommendations into bills for the Legislature to consider in a special session to begin March 1. Any that are in the form of a constitutional amendment, such as the proposal to change the method for calculating available money from the permanent fund, must also be put to a public vote.
Each of the four questions before the panel deserves serious consideration. For now, however, it is sufficient to note that the level of the budget debate has been enhanced by the governor's proposed ''Conference of Alaskans.''
Using the panel's work as a catalyst will provide Gov. Murkowski and the Legislature with the opportunity to move ahead together. And it will provide the public an opportunity to jettison its knee-jerk reaction against anything related to the fund.
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner - Jan. 23
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