Push every candidate for something more than a Permanent Fund Dividend slogan

Someday we may have a campaign season in which there will be an informed discussion about the potential of the Alaska Permanent Fund. It hasn't happened yet.

Given the importance of the permanent fund to Alaska's future, the discussion ought to consist of more than pledges to protect the dividend and claims that the other guy or gal is trying to take away the dividend.

The fund is Alaska's largest asset and the projections show that over the long run it will be the biggest and most consistent source of state revenue.

But many of the people running for office, from both major parties, have been silent on the many tradeoffs Alaskans face in deciding whether to continue or change the status quo.

Most families receive thousands more in dividends than they pay in local and state taxes combined, a situation that exists nowhere else in America. Whether that good fortune will continue forever is an open question, but it is the strongest indicator that we don't have a crisis, but a challenge that can be overcome with leadership.

Without the permanent fund we would soon be facing a crisis. With it, our state has options.

I don't know how long we can pretend that the fund is not a logical source for at least some of the money to pay for state services . It was a foregone conclusion at the time the fund was created because the dividend program didn't come along until four years later.

The late Oral Freeman was a legislative leader who can be counted among the many "fathers" of the permanent fund.

In 1986, he told an Anchorage audience that in objecting to use of the earnings by the Legislature, the people weren't giving their lawmakers a "square shake."

"What happens to the earnings is up to the legislators. We wrote it that way," he told the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce. "(They) can spend every penny that the permanent fund earns."

Today the earnings are often referred to as "the people's money," because about half of the money has traditionally been used to pay dividends. In truth every dollar the state collects is the people's money and we elect legislators to make spending decisions on our behalf about how to handle all of the people's money. The funds to keep the schools open and the roads plowed are also the people's money.

Since there seems to be little desire on the part of most Alaskans or candidates to eliminate large state government programs or slash state funding for education or other services, it makes sense that the permanent fund earnings should be considered in the mix of possible revenue sources.

I've written about the Alaska Permanent Fund and the dividend since 1977 in newspapers and books. On Wednesday at the Murie Auditorium at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, I will give what I hope will be an entertaining presentation on "Alaska at a Crossroads: How the Struggle Over the Permanent Fund Dividend Unites and Divides Alaskans."

When I was asked months ago by UAF Summer Sessions Director Michelle Bartlett to talk about something on the evening of July 25, I invented a generic title about communication and history.

As I've watched the campaign season develop with plenty of dividend discussion, I decided to talk about just how to nudge the debate beyond the tired slogans.

There is no bigger issue facing the state than the handling of the Permanent Fund and the dividend, but the decades have shown that people running for office won't tackle the difficult details if voters don't insist on answers.

The lecture will be at 7 p.m. There will be free parking, no admission charge and a minor revelation about what you have just read,

Dermot ColeComment