Alaska is considering the biggest changes to the Permanent Fund since its creation, but lawmakers say public response has been light

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Jun. 10—JUNEAU — In a new advertising campaign, Gov. Mike Dunleavy is urging Alaskans to pressure their state legislators for action on his new plan to guarantee the Permanent Fund dividend and definitively cap spending from the fund.

It includes ads on Facebook, text messages and direct emails, but Alaskans appear to be enjoying the summer in ways that don't involve politics. Legislators say the public response isn't what it was two years ago, when Dunleavy launched a similar advertising campaign amid efforts to significantly cut the state budget.

"It's not moving the needle," said Sen. Mia Costello, an Anchorage Republican and a supporter of the governor's plan.

The governor's office hasn't yet said how much the campaign has cost, but figures published by Facebook indicate that $3,007 has been spent on ads in the past week from one Facebook page operated by the office.

Jeff Turner, a spokesman for the governor's office, said the "social media campaign has reached almost every Alaskan with a Facebook account" and has resulted in 8,000 emails to legislators. The emails were sent through a form provided by the governor's office.

Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, said he's received about 250-400 emails about the governor's plan but doesn't consider that a particularly high number. Only five have come from within his own district. Two years ago, he received more than 1,000 messages from his district about budget cuts proposed by the governor. Thousands more came from across the state.

Rep. Bart LeBon, R-Fairbanks, said he's hearing from constituents, but "not in large numbers."

The Legislature has debated the future of the Permanent Fund every year since 2013, and "I think people are just weary," Costello said.

Dunleavy's plan, nicknamed the "50-50 plan,″ is straightforward. Since 2018, the Permanent Fund has transferred money to the state treasury to pay for services and dividends. That transfer is 5% of the fund's average earnings over several years.

Dunleavy's plan would divide that transfer in half, reserving half for state services and the other half for the dividend, which would be a constitutionally guaranteed payment. The dividend would be larger than it has been in recent years, but lower than a traditional formula in state law that was used from 1982 through 2015.

The Permanent Fund, not oil, funds the majority of state services, but it isn't big enough to sustainably pay for dividends under the traditional formula and services at present levels.

Dunleavy has argued convincingly that constitutionalizing the dividend is necessary to stop annual legislative debates over the amount of the dividend. This year, as in past years, those debates have created a deadlock that threatens to shut down state services.

Most legislators now say they agree with constitutionalizing the dividend, but they disagree about the form that amendment should take and whether it should be accompanied by taxes or additional cuts to services.

During a Tuesday hearing of the House Finance Committee, Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, suggested that a 75-25 split could be enough to balance the budget without additional taxes or cuts. Several Republican state senators have suggested sales taxes and higher oil taxes could make the 50-50 split plausible.

Sen. Natasha von Imhof, R-Anchorage, has suggested creating a dedicated dividend fund and discussed that idea with the Claman-led House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. In the same meeting, Rep. Adam Wool, D-Fairbanks, discussed a proposal to combine dividend changes with an income tax.

The Senate Finance Committee has scheduled a 1:30 p.m. meeting to discuss the governor's 50-50 plan.

Claman said it's somewhat remarkable that the public hasn't gotten involved more, given the stakes. The result of the Legislature's debates could be the biggest change to the Permanent Fund since it was created in 1976.

"It's not on the radar for most people," he said.

In addition to Facebook ads, the governor's communications team has used text messages and a direct email campaign.

The ads have been published using channels last employed in 2019, when the governor proposed large budget cuts to compensate for a big dividend. Those ads prompted a series of ethics complaints, and the governor paid $2,800 to settle the complaints without admitting wrongdoing.

The advertising campaign was later identified as one of the grounds for a recall campaign against the governor. (That campaign has stalled short of the support needed to force a statewide vote.)

Turner said this year's effort "has undergone an extensive review by the Department of Law and meets ethical standards created by the Legislature."

"The governor has to be able to use state resources in a way that advances the people's agenda and is taking his case to the people using the most effective technology and communications tools available. Alaska is far and away the largest state in the country with fewer road miles than Connecticut. Social media is a means of flattening those geographic limitations and connecting Alaskans to their government," he said.

Some legislators have suggested that the governor conduct a statewide series of presentations, akin to what former Gov. Bill Walker did for his failed attempts to reform the state budget.

Claman said he intends to hold local community meetings to discuss the idea. The amendment is on the agenda for the ongoing special session in Juneau, but the state budget has consumed most attention. Dunleavy has called a special session for August on other matters, and lawmakers would like the amendment to be considered then.

Correction: The initial version of this article incorrectly reported that the dividend is an item on the August special session agenda. It is on the current special session agenda, but not for August.

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