First of the Permanent Fund checks go to Alaskans

Posted: Wednesday, October 10, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- Banks stocked up on cash and merchants braced for an annual shopping spree to rival Christmas as about 400,000 Alaskans awoke on Wednesday flush with cash.

The Alaska Permanent Fund made its annual direct deposits of dividends from the state's oil investment account into the bank accounts of eligible Alaskans.

About 406,682 Alaskans received their $1,850.28 dividend by direct-deposit, injecting more than $752 million into consumer accounts in a single day. Another estimated 190,000 eligible residents will begin receiving their checks after next week. All checks will be mailed by Nov. 2, the state Department of Revenue said. Overall, the 2001 Permanent Fund will distribute $1.09 billion to an estimated 590,423 eligible Alaskans.

From humble beginnings 24 years ago, the $734,000 account has become a behemoth and an important ingredient in the state's economy. This year the fund was $24.8 billion.

''It's one of our biggest basic industries now,'' rivaling fishing, mining and tourism, said Scott Goldsmith, economist with the University of Alaska at Anchorage. State economists estimate dividend checks equal about 11 percent of the $9.7 billion in wages and salaries paid annually to Alaskans.

The fund was established by referendum in 1976 and became a rainy-day account for some of Alaska's excess oil revenues. It received its first deposit a year later and in 1982 residents began receiving annual checks.

Alaska residents who have been around since the first $1,000 payout in 1982 will have received $20,361 from the program after this year's distribution.

Dividend amounts had doubled over the past eight years, from $915 in 1992 to a record $1,963 last year.

The first payout of the Permanent Fund checks sparks a plethora of special sales at car dealerships, furniture stores and other businesses that rival Christmas.

''The two biggest spikes (in sales) we see are the Permanent Fund and the first snow. Sometimes they happen on the same day,'' said Jeff Stultz, of the Army Navy Store in Anchorage.

Winter clothes and gas masks are in high demand. Unfortunately, gas masks have been a scarce commodity in Alaska after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, Stultz said.

''If we had them, they would be selling like crazy,'' he said.

Both Alaska Airlines and the state's ferry system, the Alaska Marine Highway System, offer to trade PFD checks for rides. A Juneau cab driver was selling his cab for the price of two checks on Wednesday.

''I've been here for 22 years and I'm going to go somewhere where there's sunshine for a while,'' said the cab driver, who would only identify himself as ''James.''

But some Alaskans may not see an entire check coming. Through various laws passed over the years, the state is able to garnish checks for unpaid child support, back taxes and other small claims judgments. This year the state expects to collect about $21.4 million to help delinquent Alaskans pay off those debts, said Nanci Jones, director of the Permanent Fund Dividend Division.

Anchorage, the state's most densely populated city, will seize $1.5 million from residents for unpaid parking tickets, back property taxes and other debts, Jones said.

Poor stock performance caused the fund to lose money for the first time in its 25-year history, dropping by $1.7 billion by June 30. The fund's net income was $1.2 billion on June 30, which was about half of the $2.22 billion earned last fiscal year.

But since dividend checks are calculated on a five-year average of net income, checks fell by only $113.58, the department said.

Dividends are paid to every Alaska man, woman or child who has lived in the state for at least a calendar year, as well as Alaskans serving in the military or attending college Outside.

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