Dunleavy wants advisory vote because we already know the answer to oversimplified PFD question

Gov. Mike Dunleavy thinks an advisory vote on the Permanent Fund Dividend is a good idea.

He’s wrong.

But an advisory measure can be placed on the ballot by a simple majority of legislators, while constitutional amendments require a two-thirds vote before being put to the electorate. Dunleavy has a much better shot at getting an advisory vote than a constitutional amendment through the Legislature, so he may conclude that non-binding advice is all he needs.

Speaking Tuesday to reporters in Juneau, Dunleavy said, ”I would love to have an advisory vote, at least that would show folks, legislators, what people are thinking statewide, because what I’m hearing from people is, ‘Well, my constituents want to use the PFD.’ Then I go and I have the road shows in their districts and I’m hearing the opposite. So I’m willing to defer to the people. And at the minimum, at the minimum what I’m saying is here pretty quickly if we did an advisory vote on the PFD we can get an idea where people really are at."

“If we’re not even willing to do an advisory vote, then we’re really not serious about engaging the people of Alaska,” Dunleavy claimed.

If we’re serious about engaging Alaskans, Dunleavy and the rest of our elected officials need to admit that when the state asks residents the equivalent of “Do you want a bigger check?” there is no point in printing the ballots because we already know what the results will be.

There are many other questions that Dunleavy doesn’t want on the ballot that would influence the specific wording of those he does want on the ballot: Do you want 45 students in every classroom? Do you want to shut down the ferry system and destroy communities on the coast? Do you want to turn the University of Alaska into a set of community colleges? Do you want to confiscate hundreds of millions in property taxes and fish taxes from local governments? Should the state raise oil taxes? Should the state institute an income tax?

These and many other policy challenges cannot be separated from the discussion, though Dunleavy is trying to restrict public involvement to his oversimplified bumper-sticker solutions.

The strongest argument against a Permanent Fund advisory vote is the 1999 Permanent Fund advisory vote.

Some matters on which the voters give advice are suitable for simple up-or-down votes—the 1976 measure on whether we should have a unicameral legislature, for instance, or the 1986 vote on whether the longevity bonus should have been turned into an annuity.

But if the state wants guidance on complicated matters, it needs a format that recognizes answers that are not simply “yes” or “no.” The advisory approach does not allow for compromises. A representative government with public hearings and committee votes is a process that does.

But the words “vote of the people” have a magical allure to grandstanding politicians.

In 1999, the Legislature put a 27-word question on a special election ballot: "After paying annual dividends to residents and inflation-proofing the Permanent Fund, should a portion of Permanent Fund earnings be used to help balance the state budget?"

The measure failed by a spectacular margin, but it was impossible to say exactly what the voters meant that day because there was no consensus in Alaska on the real meaning of “yes” and “no.” The only consensus was that oil prices were below $20 a barrel, something had to change, and most voters found reason to dislike the only option placed before them.

The Legislature attached an alleged “balanced budget plan” as a preamble to the ballot measure. It included a host of debatable assumptions about state finances and state services and vague assertions. There would be no taxes, but there would be a commission to study ways to reduce government spending and the state would make essential services a priority.

As I wrote at the time, “Different people have different reasons for voting yea or nay. They also have different goals in mind, which is why the election results will be harded to explain than ‘Who’s on First?”

Opponents of the measure included those who wanted an income tax, those who wanted no income tax, those who wanted no use of Permanent Fund earnings on government services, those who wanted higher oil taxes, those who wanted higher dividends and those who wanted the state to do more to cut state spending.

The proposal said the dividend would be about $1,700 in 2000, dropping by a few hundred the next year. It would grow with the fund after that.

The measure reached the ballot because our Legislature was afraid of dealing with a complex and competing set of questions about services, taxes and dividends that required tradeoffs and compromise.

We face the same problems today and the same reluctance on the part of elected officials to anger their constituents with decisions that would cost them money. In time, a rise in oil prices bailed out the state, a pattern that has been repeated many times.

I think what I wrote about the 1999 election is still an accurate summary of our situation: “State finances are complicated. So is the task of creating a political consensus that Alaskans will accept. It will take leadership and political compromise, not advisory votes, to finish the job.”

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Dermot Cole6 Comments