Later this month the Alaska Department of Revenue will announce the exact amount of the 2002 Permanent Fund dividend check. It's usually a front-page occasion. Last year the announcement came without such fanfare, shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. Let's hope the number, expected to be in the $1,500 range, fits on page one again.
Permanent Fund earnings, which provide the yearly check to every Alaskan, have been on the table for a long time in discussions about how to cover Alaska's long-term budget needs. On the table, but that's about all, because few politicians want to step out front and propose a budget plan that reduces the dividend. Sure, the state House approved such plan last session, at some political risk, but everyone knew the plan was dead at the Senate's door.
''I'll protect your dividend'' has become a favored campaign cry of some politicians. Even those who don't think in slogans point to the overwhelming defeat of the ''Balanced Budget Plan'' in 1999 and argue that messing with the dividend won't fly. Alaskans figure that those earnings are theirs and that some in government want to take them away.
Here's something to consider: What if we never had a dividend? What if Permanent Fund earnings went for inflation-proofing and then, as the Constitution provides, for spending as the Legislature sees fit? Chances are we wouldn't be having this debate. We'd be covering the budget gap with fund earnings and having other fierce debates about how to invest our money.
There's the difference -- instead of ''my'' money, it would be ''our'' money.
But that's not how it is. We've had the dividend since 1982, almost a generation, and here it's no longer a marvel but an autumn tradition, whether mad money or a reliable piece of family budgets. Alaska's reality just isn't the same as reality in the other 49 states.
One of the beauties -- or banes, to some -- of the dividend program is that you can argue for it from just about anywhere on the political spectrum. From the left, income redistribution to the poor. From the right, putting money in the hands of the people rather than in the hands of bureaucrats.
But while Alaska's reality is different, we can't duck the laws of economics any more than anyone else. The fiscal gap isn't just a ''government'' problem. It's our problem. And chances are we're going to have to give up some of the individual dividend to solve our problem.
That's hard to accept unless we have a good sense of ''our,'' an understanding that Alaska citizens have constitutional obligations to the common good as well as their individual welfare. That's something that Revenue Commissioner Wilson Condon stressed in a thoughtful speech for the dividend announcement several years ago.
Meanwhile, the market has made its own cut, so our checks will be a little less this year. But no less welcome to our individual and family budgets. We can debate the best use of Permanent Fund earnings while we take our checks to the bank. The budget shortfall is big and real, and will have real consequences. But as we receive our checks this fall, let's keep some perspective: Citizens in 49 other states would love to face our fiscal problem.
To solve this problem, all we have to do is give a little to the common good. Clearly, we can afford it.
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