They call themselves the Permanent Fund Defenders. The 12-member grassroots group is made up of former lawmakers and political activists whose New Year’s resolution is to convince lawmakers not to vote for Gov. Bill Walker’s proposal to restructure the Permanent Fund Dividend program this session.
Walker introduced a bill at that end last month as a long-term solution to the state’s multi-billion dollar budget gap.
But former Republican lawmaker Rick Halford and political activist Dr. Jack Hickel call the PFD program a model for reducing poverty in other oil economies around the world and said that it should only be changed by a vote of the people.
“I think it’s wrong and unethical for the government to try to change or restructure the permanent fund and to cap the Permanent Fund Dividend without our permission,” said Hickel, son of former governor Walter Hickel. “I think it should go to a vote of the people because it’s ours and they’re trying to take it away from us.”
The pair worries that delinking the annual dividend check from the permanent fund itself would reduce each Alaskan’s individual stake in how the permanent fund is managed.
“I think if people understand that the permanent fund world example is under attack in Alaska, they will stand up for it,” Halford said. “But they have to understand it, and it’s our job to help them understand it.”
The Permanent Fund Defenders have posted educational videos about the permanent fund to YouTube and created a Facebook page, with a website coming later this month. Juanita Cassellius, the organizer of the group, said the plan is to operate on donations and to mostly utilize social media for outreach.
The group calls its goal nonpartisan. Cassellius said it includes former lawmakers like Clem Tillion and the support of current legislators — Democrat Sen. Bill Wielechowski and Republicans Sen. Mike Dunleavy and Rep. David Eastman.
The lobbying effort is similar to one created in 1999 called Backbone, to which Halford was also a member. Backbone opposed the BP-Arco merger, and declared victory when the Federal Trade Commission made BP sell its Arco assets to ConocoPhillips.
Tim Bradner, co-publisher of the Alaska Legislative Digest, has reported on the Legislature for more than 20 years. He still remembers Backbone’s rallies in front of the capitol building.
“It makes good TV, and I’m sure there will be rallies and press conferences and things like that with this group here, but at the end of the day, it’s really what happens in the heat of the end of the session and the dealing of the legislators among themselves,” Bradner said. “[The Public Defenders] will surely have some impact, but how much? We just don’t know.”
While Backbone succeeded in some cases, it failed in others — like its 2012 effort to uphold the Alaska Senate’s bipartisan coalition.
All proposals to change the PFD will have to work through the legislative process once session begins on Jan. 17.
In a statement, Walker responded to the group’s demand by saying:
“With an over $3 billion budget deficit annually, the price of no fiscal solution is that we have drawn down on our limited savings by nearly $13 billion. It is not responsible for us to continue with the status quo. To fund essential services that Alaskans rely on, we must look at new sources of revenue. My administration looks forward to working with the legislature to pass a sustainable fiscal plan, while preserving the Permanent Fund Dividend for years to come.”
Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly spelled Dr. Jack Hickel and Walter Hickel’s names. This has been amended.