Yes, the amount of this year’s Alaska Permanent Fund dividend will be at stake when legislators convene in another special session on Monday.
And while the PFD is important, legislators — and Alaskans — should not let the political fights over the dividend overwhelm the importance of resolving other financial disputes that jeopardize the lives of tens of thousands of Alaskans.
In particular, there are the Power Cost Equalization (PCE) payments that benefit about 82,000 Alaskans in almost 200 rural communities across the state.
The Legislature created the program in 1984 to ensure that residents in rural communities receive help with their high electricity costs.
It was an issue of fairness, not a gift.
The state had poured hundreds of millions of dollars into other energy projects around the state. That included the Bradley Lake hydroelectric project near Homer, which serves Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula to Fairbanks, as well as Tyee Lake and Swan Lake, which generate power for Wrangell, Petersburg and Ketchikan, along with two other costly hydro projects for Kodiak and Valdez/Glennallen.
But even with the PCE help, rural electricity bills are still painfully costly. For example, residents in Kake benefit from the program, but their electricity rates are still two to three times higher than in Wrangell. Without it, they would be five or six times higher.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy, in an ongoing political dispute of his own making with the Legislature, wiped out the payments for the fiscal year that started July 1, about $32 million. He decided a couple of years ago that the endowment which pays the bills is not available for appropriation without a three-quarters majority vote of the House and Senate — and that did not happen this year amid political squabbles.
Without access to the endowment, there will be no PCE payments to 29,000 households and almost 2,000 community facilities in small communities. That includes Kake, Angoon, Hoonah, Prince of Wales Island communities and other Southeast towns.
Supporters of the program are in court, asking a judge to order the governor to restore the funding. But their first choice would be for legislators to put aside their differences over the PFD and politics, and find the courage to resolve the PCE problem with a three-quarters vote.
The same hope applies to a state college scholarship program that serves almost 5,500 students, which has shut down its endowment checkbook the same as PCE because the governor thinks a three-quarters vote is the correct legal answer — although many legislators believe a simple majority vote would be good enough, just as it was for years.
But settle their differences they must, for if the Legislature and governor cannot resolve it, a lot of Alaskans will be reading in the dark as they study for college they cannot afford.
Editors note: This opinion went to press prior to the Alaska judicial decision to keep the PCE out of the sweep back to the general fund.