Legislature set to vote on dividend, university funding, rural energy assistance
The Senate and House on Monday are poised to vote on separate budget bills that have implications for the Permanent Fund dividend, college scholarships and efforts to restore significant portions of the $444 million vetoed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
The House will take a final vote on a capital budget that not only draws federal matching dollars for highway, airport and construction projects, but it could also restore dozens of funds swept in the constitutional budget reserve. But that will take 30 votes rather than 21 from a simple majority, and the House fell five votes and a single vote short in previous efforts.
Among the more high-profile depleted funds was the Power Cost Equalization Endowment Fund, which generates its own revenue to assist largely with rural energy costs. It traditionally has not been swept the way others have under the constitution, but Alaska Attorney General Kevin Clarkson ruled the fund must be swept.
House Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, says a reverse sweep by lawmakers is essential to the communities she represents in Western Alaska.
“There’s a lot of anxiety about people in my district being able to make ends meet just to pay for their energy costs, but also there’s a lot of concern about the ripple effects throughout a community if the Power Cost Equalization Endowment Fund goes away,” Zulkosky said.
House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, says the fund’s reach extends well beyond the rural areas. He and Zulkosky represent about 75 communities in western and Aleutian communities.
“It doesn’t just fund Power Cost Equalization,” he said. “It also funds community assistance, which is huge for places like Anchorage and Fairbanks and Juneau, and also for energy projects, which when you look at the Alaska Energy Authority, their charge is to provide more affordable energy rates for all of Alaska, not just rural Alaska.”
The Senate will hear a budget bill to restore all but 91 million of Dunleavy’s vetoes, including $130 million for the University of Alaska and $20 million for the Senior Benefits Program.
But the longstanding debate over the size of the Permanent Fund dividend — $1,600 or $3,000 — is expected to get reprised.
On Saturday the Senate Finance Committee narrowly amended House Bill 2001 to include a $3,000 PFD. But that could change when the full Senate votes. Dunleavy has pushed for $3,000, but he has not been able to secure the requisite 21 votes from the House nor 11 from the Senate. Still, the Senate Finance Committee received five votes in favor of the larger sum calculated under the statutory formula.
The higher amount requires drawing $875 million from the fund’s earnings account, which pays for the annual payout.
“This amendment will erode the value of the Permanent Fund — $875 million that you can’t get back,” said Sen. Natasha von Imhof.
Lawmakers have been talking about enacting a new formula, but some want a $3,000 payout first – then talk about changes. Others say the state can’t wait another year to determine a new calculation.
“I don’t want to do a quick reduction now and then have the people of Alaska decide they've been short-changed,” said Sen. Peter Micciche. “I think this rebuilds some of the angst from reduced dividends in the past and it allows us to sit down over the next months and talk about the real math.”
The Senate and House are scheduled to meet at 11 a.m. It’s expected that one body will vote after the other and not simultaneously.
Monday will be day 22 of the second 30-day session for lawmakers. It will be the 172nd day including the regular and first special sessions.
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