The Conference of Alaskans opens this week in Fairbanks. And while the stated goal is a majority position on the Alaska Permanent Fund's relation to the state budget, the conference also will find itself with an unstated goal: the further education of the public.
The conference's 55 voting members have a tall order and little time. Yet what they decide, whether it is radical change or the status quo, will be the basis for public debate in the remaining months of the legislative session and into the fall election season more so if, as Gov. Frank Murkowski and others hope, a permanent fund proposal also is on the November ballot.
The central question before the panel is whether fund money should be used to pay for government. It should.
To date, the Legislature has generally shunned the idea of spending the fund's earnings, even though it has the authority to do so without a vote of the people. The conference participants should see that it is time for the fund to help pay the cost of government and should make such a proposal, thereby providing some political support for a Legislature wary of taking the action alone. Legislators still live in the shadow of the 1999 permanent fund vote and its resounding ''no.''
Conference participants also should see the wisdom of adopting what is known as the Percent of Market Value plan for changing how fund money is made available to government. Under this plan, known generally as the POMV and put forward by the fund's board of trustees, the Legislature would have annual access to a maximum 5 percent of the fund's total value, averaged over five years. Annual earnings from the fund would be placed in the principal, from which the 5 percent sum would then be derived. The idea is sound in that it sharply reduces volatility, giving state government a fairly predictable funding source and preventing a free fall in the size of the dividend.
Separate legislation, on which a public vote is not required, would decide how that 5 percent is allocated. Under one prominent scenario, the money would be divided equally between the dividend program and general government, for about $600 million apiece in the early years.
Yet this will be all for naught if the public doesn't come along.
Because the POMV plan will come in the form of a constitutional amendment, a public vote must be held. And without the POMV, there is virtually no chance the Legislature will vote on its own to spend earnings from the fund even though, again, it has the authority to do so without a public vote.
Delegates to the Fairbanks conference, therefore, must realize they will be on one side of the podium, with the class of Alaska facing them.
If the delegates choose the POMV plan and subsequent use of the fund, they must convincingly explain the need to a skeptical public. If they choose some other option, they must explain why it is better though it is difficult to see any permanent fund plan that is more reasoned.
And if the delegates choose to leave things as they are, they must provide some other solution. And that is why it is good to see that the conference's seven leaders will allow delegates and those who are making presentations to talk about the other possibilities, such as taxes, a spending cap, resource development or further budget cuts.
For better or worse, Alaska's leaders have decided they cannot act further without a clear signal from the public. When the conference opens ..., the sales job will prove just as important as the substance.
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
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