By FRITZ PETTYJOHN
We know what the big issue will be when the legislature convenes next week. It’s been the same fight for last five years. For four months (or five, or six) they’ll debate, “How big will the PFD be?”
There’s no reason to expect that this will be the last such fight. The legislature is divided, and both political parties are divided. The people of Alaska are divided. The only way to resolve the issue, once and for all, is by amending the Alaska Constitution. Putting a formula into law won’t help, as we learned in 2016. Gov. Bill Walker’s veto of the dividend amount was in violation of the law, but the Supreme Court said that didn’t matter. Passing a new law wouldn’t accomplish a thing.
And a new statute is the best we can expect, according to Senate President Pete Micciche. He said as much in a recent podcast with MRAK. He wants a 50-50 split of Permanent Fund earnings, with half going to the dividend. He said getting eleven votes in the Senate and 21 in the House will be a challenge. He’s in a position to know. That means getting 14 in the Senate, and 27 in the House to propose a constitutional amendment just isn’t going to be possible.
Since the legislature has proven itself incapable of settling this dispute, it’s up to the people. Do they trust themselves with such a decision? Or would they rather let Alaska’s politicians continue to deal with it? If they have faith in their own judgement, they’ll vote for a constitutional convention in November.
If they do vote yes, the legislature will decide when and where the convention would be held, how long it would last, and how the delegates will be elected. Parts of the law in effect today, SLA Alaska 1955 ch. 46, are obsolete.
The old statute did set up a system which resulted in an outstanding cross section of Alaska’s most thoughtful citizens (only eight of them legislators). They proposed a model Constitution, which Alaskans have been generally satisfied with, up to now. But the men and women who wrote our Constitution didn’t know there was going to be a Permanent Fund, much less a dividend.
They did realize that situations might arise in the future which required amending the Constitution. And they understood that such needed amendments might never get the 2/3 vote needed for the legislature to propose it. In this case, the legislature itself is the problem, and it can’t fix itself. Because of the foresight of the framers of Alaska’s Constitution, we’ve had a chance every ten years to vote for a convention, to break the legislative gridlock. When they gave voters this power, they necessarily believed they could be trusted with it. Do we?
The opponents of the dividend will try to convince voters that a convention simply can’t be trusted. It might propose something radical, which would be ratified by the people, because the people can’t be trusted.
Alaskan voters have a right to know where candidates for the Legislature, and governor, stand on this issue. They also need to know how the the 1955 law currently in place will be amended. Such legislation should be introduced, and debated, this year. People need to know what to expect if they do vote yes.
It’s not entirely clear where Gov. Mike Dunleavy stands on this issue. Perhaps he still hopes that somehow the Legislature will propose a constitutional solution to this problem. Since that’s almost certain not to happen, he should introduce a bill setting out the procedures he would prefer for the convention, so that voters will have some idea of what to expect if the call for a convention is approved.
As governor of this state, he has an obligation to lead.
Fritz Pettyjohn served in the Alaska legislature in the 1980’s, and has practiced law in Alaska since 1974.