It’s horse-trading season for the last hours of the Alaska Legislature’s regular session, and that means it’s also bill-stuffing season. Those legislators with bills they want to pass — and who haven’t been able to move them — will try to wedge their bill language into other bills that are already on the floor.
The piece of legislation most Alaskans are paying attention to is the state operating budget, which contains the Permanent Fund dividend appropriation. Alaskans have a dog in the fight because $3,850 per qualifying Alaskan is on the potential chopping block.
The conference committee — a body of six from the House and Senate — hammered out a negotiated amount of $3,850, and also reduced the overall budget by about $1.5 billion. The final budget deal went to the Clerk’s Office, and was to be on the desks of every legislator 24 hours before the end of tonight’s floor sessions, which is expected to go until midnight. There will be a final vote.
There are understandings and there are side conversations at play:
In the understandings department, the governor originally wanted a 50-50 dividend for the people, plus an “even-up” from what the Legislature took from their dividends last year. That’s what this amount of $3,850 represents. He also wanted the people to be able to vote on putting the way the PFD is calculated into the Alaska Constitution. That is an item he is not getting.
The budget and the dividend needs a three-quarters vote — a supermajority — to access the Constitutional Budget Reserve as one of the sources to pay for it. The short version is: If 11 legislators in the House and six in the Senate vote no, every Alaskans loses $550 from the dividend that now stands at $3,850. The supermajority is 30 in the House, 20 in the Senate, which will require a lot of anti-dividend Democrats to vote in favor of this budget.
If they don’t vote for this budget, word is that the governor will veto capital projects from their districts. This year’s capital budget is the largest in a decade, and it’s a target-rich environment for the governor to get what he can for Alaskans in terms of a dividend. Alaskans are facing the highest gas and heating oil prices of their lives, along with inflation that is over 11 percent for the essential goods and services they need.
For this vote, and for this dividend, lawmakers really have nowhere to hide. They will have a tough time explaining to the people of their districts why they voted against their interests.
As for side conversations, one wealthy Anchorage senator has been working the halls to try to knife the deal. Careful observers in the halls of the Capitol say Sen. Natasha von Imhof, who is an opponent of large dividends, has been visiting other lawmakers to get them to vote against the deal. Von Imhof is not running again for Senate and is said to be preparing to take the helm of the Rasmuson Foundation, her family foundation that some call the fourth branch of government and the second-most powerful branch of government, due to its endowment and therefore its control of the nonprofit sector in Alaska.
Last year, she implored her colleagues to not vote for a statutory dividend, in a speech that was shocking, in that she called it “greed and entitlement.”
“The greed and the entitlement is astounding to me,” von Imhof said to the Senate last year, describing the people of Alaska who support the statutory formula for the Permanent Fund dividend. She is working her magic again this year.
The operating budget vote comes at a price for all lawmakers. All of them who are up for reelection this year — and that is almost all of them but Von Imhof and Sen. Donny Olson — will have to face their voters to explain why they voted down the $550 portion of the PFD, and why they cost their district needed capital budget items such as road maintenance.