How much power does a governor have over the PFD?
The Alaska Permanent Fund dividend is a key issue in Alaska's race for governor.
In 2016, Gov. Bill Walker became the first governor to ever reduce dividend checks using his veto power. Can a future governor use that same power to restore them?
The answer is no.
It has to do with the separation of powers in government, as outlined in the state's constitution.
"Basically, the constitution allows the governor the right to cut, make a veto and cut spending, which is what Walker did," explained Tim Bradner, co-publisher of the Alaska Legislative Digest. "The governor cannot add spending. The governor can't legally appropriate, or increase the size of the dividend. Only the legislature can do that."
Walker decreased dividends in 2016 by vetoing part of the funding that would have paid them from the state budget -- essentially cutting checks in half that year. However, Bradner notes that the Legislature does have the power to override a governor's veto, with a super majority vote. That didn't happen in 2016.
"That rarely happens," Bradner, who has covered the Alaska Legislature for more than three decades, noted.
The two candidates for governor in the Nov. 6 election have different approaches on what to do with the permanent fund dividend program amid the state's tight financial times.
Democrat Mark Begich proposes a constitutional amendment that would provide the highest level of protection for dividend funding. Any amendment to the constitution requires a vote of the Alaska people, but, even before it can get to that point, it first requires legislative approval.
"To get a constitutional amendment is not an easy road. You have to have two-thirds vote in the House and Senate," Bradner said. "The constitutional amendment to protect the dividend has been discussed before. It's going to be controversial. A lot of people think that's not a good idea to put something like that in the constitution. One of the problems with it is it makes the dividend the most important appropriation."
That means that the dividend would have to be paid first, ahead of appropriations for basic state services such as police and fire protection, or education.
"If you really do it where it is guaranteed, it would have that kind of effect. That might run into some legal problems," Bradner said. "In any event, the governor has to work it through the Legislature, has to negotiate it, use his power of persuasion to get the Legislature to approve it. Two-thirds [vote of each body], not easy. Then he has to persuade the public."
On the other side of the aisle, a political action committee was formed to support Republican Mike Dunleavy. PACs aren't allowed to coordinate with political candidates, but they are able to advertise and amplify the campaign's message.
However, The Dunleavy for Alaska PAC has echoed the candidate's message about the PFD in a way that could cause confusion for some voters. A publication on the PAC's website states, "As Governor, Mike Dunleavy will restore the PFD to [its] original formula."
But by using the word "restore," the PAC is referring to Dunleavy's potential to persuade lawmakers to fund a full PFD.
"We are confident that Mike Dunleavy’s leadership and ability to reach across the aisle will lead to the restoration of the traditional PFD formula," said Terre Gales, chair of the Dunleavy for Alaska PAC, in an email Thursday.
"[A governor] has a lot of persuasive powers, a lot of things he can do," Bradner said. "You know, our president does that. It's called 'bully pulpit.' He uses the pulpit to go to the public to raise support for his program, whatever it is. In this case, it might be fully funding the dividend or using the formula that's in statute. But he can't actually do it."
Brander notes that for the the last two years, the Legislature has reduced dividends through its own budgeting process.
"They appropriated only enough money for a partial dividend," Bradner said. "A lot of people kind of forget that. A lot of Republicans voted for that."
Whoever Alaska's next governor is, they'll likely be working with many of those same legislators, and convincing them to adopt a Begich or Dunleavy plan could prove challenging.
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