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No free lunch, but Alaskans still have their dividend checks

Posted: Friday, March 28, 2003

The irony should not be lost on any Alaskan: Gov. Frank Murkowski is scheduled to pitch his budget ideas on statewide television the day before the deadline for permanent fund dividend applications.

In other words, on Sunday, Alaskans likely will hear a variation of the theme "there is no such thing as a free lunch." But, through Monday, they will have a chance to apply for something even better than a free lunch free money.

Barring dramatic changes in financial markets, Department of Revenue officials estimate this year's dividend will be somewhere between $1,120 and $1,160 about $400 less than last year's check which totaled $1,540. While it's reduced, the dividend still will add a cushion to every Alaskans' wallet.

But here's the rub.

On the one hand, the governor is asking all Alaskans to tighten their belts and help pay for the cost of state government. On the other hand, the state is wealthy enough to give every man, woman and child a generous check for living in what is arguably the most beautiful place on the planet. It's not as if Alaska is Siberia or Antarctica and Alaskans deserve a hardship bonus.

If there's any logical way to explain this dichotomy of poor state-rich state, it's easy to miss.

And, as long as Alaskans continue to receive healthy dividend checks, they are unlikely to believe that Alaska really has any kind of financial problems that they should have to help solve.

If one adds up the cost of some of the governor's budget proposals a $100 school head tax on wage earners or a seasonal sales tax, a 12-cent-per-gallon increase in the state's motor fuel tax, an increase in motor vehicle title and registration fees and a $10 per tire surcharge on studded tires just to name a few well, it's easy to see that the costs will add up. It means Alaskans will have less income to spend.

And there will be other costs to Alaskans, as well. With municipalities getting less money from the state Murkowski has proposed a 25 percent reduction in local government support they, too, will be asking Alaskans to help pay for programs or see them cut.

The city of Kenai provides a perfect example. Kenai is experiencing the pinch of the nationwide drop in interest rates, but the pinch hurts even more because of the closure of Big Kmart and Murkowski's proposal to cut municipal revenue-sharing funds. The city is looking at cutting more than $1.2 million out of its current budget. Every city department, with the exception of public safety, will be trimmed, say city officials.

That means residents are going to see changes. And there's sure to be some whining about those changes.

Just as at the state level.

No cuts are left that won't hurt someone somewhere. And who wants to pay for what they once received for free?

That's why at both the local and state level, it's imperative that Alaskans take an active role in letting officials know what they can't live without and what they are willing to sacrifice. Education and public safety should be on the list to receive more money, not less.

Alaskans need to be clear about what their priorities are. Alaskans should seriously respond to legislators' requests for ideas on budget cuts and revenue-generating measures. The best way to bridge the state's budget gap is Alaskans working together for solutions.

In the meantime, Alaskans need to come to grips with the fact that the days of the free lunch are over even if the free money still flows.

Permanent fund dividend applications must be postmarked by midnight Monday or filed online before midnight that day or delivered to any of the state's dividend division offices by 5 p.m. March 31. Online applicants can go to the division's Web site at www.pfd.state.ak.us.

The Division's offices in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau will be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, even though it is a state holiday. The offices are at:

Anchorage: 616 E Street; phone 269-0370.

Fairbanks: 1005 Cushman Street; 451-2820.

Juneau: State Office Building (temporary offices will be set up just inside the doors at the Willoughby Avenue entrance); 465-2326.

Or call toll-free from anywhere in Alaska, 1-800-733-8813.

More than 2,000 people each year miss the deadline and lose out on the dividend.

"The penalty for missing the deadline is clearly set in state law. It is loss of the dividend for the year," said Revenue Commissioner Bill Corbus. "There is no reason to miss the deadline, other than forgetfulness, and that is an expensive lesson to learn.

"For those who file by mail, it is important to remember that your application must be postmarked by midnight, not simply dropped in a Postal Service box," Corbus said. "I urge people to take the time to go to the postal window and make sure their envelope is postmarked by the deadline."



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