A resolution to enshrine the dividend program in the constitution got a first hearing Tuesday. Sen. Bill Wielechowski’s Senate Joint Resolution 1 was taken up in the Senate State Affairs Committee. The bill proposes a vote to amend the state constitution, and require that money from the Permanent Fund’s earnings reserve be spent on PFD checks, first.

The Legislature could still access leftover money for government, after that.

“I know there’s a reaction by some to my proposal and all I’m asking is just give me a chance to lay out what I have to say,” Wielechowski said to colleagues at the start of his presentation on SJR1 Tuesday.

The idea of a constitutional amendment has been criticized as shifting the responsibility of solving the state’s fiscal crisis onto voters, including by members of Wielechowski’s own party.

“I mean, at a certain point we’re elected to make some decisions as long as it’s within the constitutional rights that we have,” said Rep. Adam Wool. “If it was something we’d need to change the constitution, that’s one thing, but some of these things can’t wait another year.”

When the Permanent fund was first created in 1976, then Gov. Jay Hammond demanded that the principal of the fund be protected, not just by law, but in the constitution. Sen. Bill Stoltze, chair of the Senate State Affairs Committee, said he’s following Hammond’s precept by hearing the bill.

“I’m not quite in the driver’s seat that Governor Hammond was in being able to veto a bill, but I’m certainly going to continue to assert mine,” Stoltze said.

Stoltze defended the idea of a constitutional amendment Tuesday, saying it wouldn’t shift responsibility to voters, but instead puts a bigger burden on the legislature to convince Alaskans the money should go to government.

“I think the public has more confidence in something that they’re asked about and that’s guaranteed this is all we’ll spend from the earnings reserve,” Stoltze said.

Using some of the Permanent Fund’s earnings for government was the subject of an advisory vote back in 1999. Alaskans rejected the idea by 83 percent. If that were to happen again, under SJR1, Stoltze said the Legislature wouldn’t necessarily be worse off in solving the state’s fiscal crisis.

“I don’t think we’re any worse off than if we pass a plan the public hates and they put a referendum up and a plan that doesn’t involve them,” Stoltze said. “It didn’t take long for folks to put the oil tax initiative on the ballot, I don’t think it’d take a lot longer to put something on that affected the dividend. I think we’d have a petition signed in record time.”

Stoltze said he’ll work to ensure SJR1 doesn’t die in his committee. He said his goal is to move all bills related to the Permanent Fund out of committee, for further discussion this session.