- Associated Press - Monday, February 10, 2014

Here is a sampling of editorial opinions from Alaska newspapers:

Feb. 9, 2014

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: Putting Permanent Fund dividend in the Constitution could be harmful in a shortfall

Legislators get paid to make decisions. We expect them to make not only the small ones but also the big ones.

With that in mind, the idea of cementing the annual Alaska Permanent Fund dividend program in the state Constitution to prevent legislators from steering money away from it for other purposes is a bad idea. But that’s what House Joint Resolution 17 would do.

The Permanent Fund itself is a part of the Alaska Constitution. Voters overwhelmingly approved it in 1976, adding Section 15 to Article IX.

But the dividend program isn’t in our state’s guiding document. It was created as an act of legislation in 1982 and can be altered without a vote of the people. The fact that the dividend program is merely a statute rather than a constitutional provision means the Legislature can spend in other ways or reduce the money usually allocated for the annual payment to residents.

It was back in 1999, for example, that the Legislature and then-Gov. Tony Knowles seriously considered doing this during a time of low oil prices, which were bouncing around near $20 per barrel at the time. It was a reasonable idea.

But the governor and legislators were wary of taking such a step without the political support of residents, so the Legislature placed on the ballot an advisory vote asking Alaskans if they would support allowing legislators to use a portion of the Permanent Fund’s investment earnings to help balance the state budget.

Voters smacked it down, with 83 percent voting no.

Another reasonable attempt to use the Permanent Fund to provide a predictable source of revenue for the functioning of government also got pushback during debate in the Legislature several years ago. Known as the Percent of Market Value plan, or POMV, this plan was supported by the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp. Board of Trustees, who saw it also as a way to protect the fund from overspending.(backslash)

Alaskans just don’t like having the Permanent Fund dividend tinkered with.

But acquiescing to that reality by locking up the dividend program in the Constitution is not true leadership.

There may come a time again when Alaska needs to have the option of turning to the Permanent Fund earnings to fill a budget gap.

Budgets rise and fall with the economy, so Alaska will likely have some sizeable financial problem to deal with at some point in time. Keeping the funds used for the Permanent Fund dividend as an option for a budget patch can also help keep at bay the instigation of other revenue sources that Alaskans so disdain - the state income tax and the state sales tax. We have neither now.

It has become extremely difficult to even begin a discussion about using Permanent Fund earnings to help the state out of a real or potential budget pickle. It leads to instant bumper-stickering. Phrases like “He wants to raid the Permanent Fund!” become omnipresent.

Doing something that would affect the size of the dividend would be a major political and policy move, but that’s what we send people to Juneau to do - confront difficult decisions. Putting the dividend program into the Constitution isn’t financially responsible.

___

Feb. 8, 2014

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: Governor slips up on education lawsuit

Take note, Fairbanks. Gov. Sean Parnell doesn’t much like it that the Ketchikan Gateway Borough has filed a lawsuit to invalidate the requirement in state law that local governments contribute funds to help pay the cost of K-12 education.

Ketchikan argues that the funding requirement punishes the state’s incorporated areas while unincorporated areas have their education costs paid in full by the state. The Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly is considering joining the lawsuit. Mayor Luke Hopkins supports Ketchikan’s contention.

The governor had some threatening words about the lawsuit in an interview this week with the Ketchikan Daily News:

“I do want to address this issue of how the lawsuit is viewed by legislators and by me because it does shade or color the reaction to Ketchikan requests,” he told the newspaper. “It’s an inevitable consequence that if Ketchikan is the driving force behind a lawsuit that could result in more financial exposure to the state, legislators and I view requests from Ketchikan through that lens.”

Sounds like a threat against Ketchikan. You file a lawsuit, you risk unfavorable treatment when we review your budget requests. By extension, that’s something that Fairbanks should be aware of - and that we should make known to the governor isn’t the correct way to conduct business.

By Friday evening, the governor was modifying his statement. His press office issued a clarification.

“Let me be clear: In no way, shape or form, will I or my administration use the pending education lawsuit as a basis to punish or single out a specific community or region of the state.”

“Unquestionably, this lawsuit presents financial uncertainty to the state, estimated at several hundred million dollars annually. While everyone has a right to their day in court, it is reasonable to assume that lawmakers would view funding requests through the lens of that financial risk, and the lawsuit.”

So, earlier in the week it was the governor saying how the lawsuit would be viewed “by legislators and by me.” On Friday, it was “In no way” will “I or my administration” use the lawsuit as a means of punishing communities.

Which is the real position? You can bet that Ketchikan and any community that supports it, including Fairbanks, will be watching the budget process more closely than usual through the remainder of this legislative session to gauge which is the real position.

The governor’s remarks shouldn’t dissuade support for Ketchikan. The borough makes a good argument.

Article 1, Section VII of the Alaska Constitution puts responsibility for education squarely with the state: “The legislature shall by general law establish and maintain a system of public schools open to all children of the State, and may provide for other public educational institutions.”

The Constitution doesn’t say that organized local governments such as Ketchikan and Fairbanks are to contribute to the maintaining of that system.

Let’s hope that Gov. Parnell is true to his revised statement and that neither he nor anyone in his administration seeks to punish Ketchikan or any of its municipal supporters for exercising their right to seek a change through the judicial system. And let’s hope, too, that legislators behave in the same manner.

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