It's hard to count to 11 in the Senate


The Permanent Fund dividend ranks among the most divisive issues in Alaska politics, along with such longstanding battles as oil taxes, salmon fisheries catch allocations and subsistence rights. Sadly, the dividend has grown in political importance in recent years, overwhelming all other issues confronting the state.

Candidates scramble to find a dividend flag large enough to wrap around themselves for campaign speeches, reasonable voices get drowned out by chants of “I want my PFD,” and state budget work is held hostage by advocates for a supersized dividend.

The size of the dividend should be a math calculation, not a political one. How much can the state treasury afford to hand out to Alaskans while continuing to provide quality schools and other public services, without overdrawing the Permanent Fund for short-term political pleasure and without resorting to heavy taxes to pay the bills.

But to solve that math problem requires another arithmetic equation. It takes 21 votes in the 40-member state House and 11 votes in the 20-member Senate to pass a spending bill. Even more when you consider other provisions of the budget process, such as the effective date and preserving several longstanding reserve funds, but let’s keep the math easy and limit the numbers to 21 and 11.

Unfortunately, there may not be 11 votes in the Senate for any reasonable dividend this legislative session, which is due to end on May 18.

The Republican-led Senate majority is as divided on the dividend as the San Andreas Fault, and just as unstable. Half want to jack up the PFD to record heights; half want to pay out a dividend that will not drain savings; and several are trying to straddle the fault line and hope they end up on solid ground after the shaking stops.

Add in the Democrats (and some Republicans), who want to deny the big-dividend governor any sort of political win for his reelection campaign, and nothing so far has added up to a firm 11 votes. Senate leadership has been reluctant to bring the issue to the floor and open it up to amendments, but it is on the calendar for this week.

The Democratic-led House majority is in a similar count-the-votes situation, though it did pass a budget bill last month that would send out payments this fall of about $2,600 to every eligible Alaskan. The next move is up to the Senate.

The best thing now for lawmakers is to work the math of the state checkbook, not the math of election polling, and settle on an affordable dividend in the final two weeks of the legislative session. It’s embarrassing that the budget for public services and community needs has to wait every year for 21 and 11 to add up to a dividend.

He stood up to politics

Unlike legislators who vote for big dividends because they know it will make them popular with voters, sometimes lawmakers stand up to politics. Such as John Coghill, a former Republican state legislator from Nenana, one of 48 candidates in the June 11 primary election to fill the seat of the late U.S. Rep. Don Young.

This is not a campaign endorsement, just a story of a different time in politics and someone who did the right thing.

About 20 years ago, when Coghill was in the House, a colleague wanted to amend a bill to allow child support enforcement investigators to carry guns. The pro-gun, pro-NRA, pro-tough-on-crime politics were obvious: Vote yes. And Coghill, no fan of gun control, normally would support personal protection legislation.

But he saw this one differently, and argued against the amendment: Why would child support investigators ever get in a situation where they would need to fear for their life and possibly shoot someone, he asked. Would the presence of a gun escalate the situation?

He was right, and the amendment was defeated. He voted on the merits, not the politics. That’s in short supply these days.


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