August 6

By James Brooks

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy is planning a $250,000 ad campaign to promote his new plan for the Permanent Fund dividend as state lawmakers prepare for a special session to discuss the dividend’s future.

In a public notice published Tuesday, the governor’s office asked for information from ad agencies willing to run a campaign on short notice. Responses are due Friday, and the administration is prepared to issue a contract without competitive bidding, the notice said.

The notice says the ads are for information only, but in a series of interviews Wednesday, Democratic and Republican state legislators said they see the ads as part of a pressure campaign by the governor. A spokesman for the governor said the ads came about because legislative polling showed two-thirds of Alaskans are unfamiliar with the governor’s idea.

Earlier this month, Dunleavy released an amended special session agenda that forbids lawmakers from setting a 2021 Permanent Fund dividend or addressing de-funded state programs until they approve a new long-term dividend formula. The governor’s preferred formula is nicknamed the “50-50,″ and it calls for a constitutionally guaranteed dividend.

“When the statement is made, if you give me my 50-50 in the constitution, I’ll help you get votes to override the vetoes, that’s concerning,” said Speaker of the House Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak.

“The result will be the opposite: It’ll cause less action, not more action,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, D-Anchorage.

Unless accompanied by additional revenue, the 50-50 plan creates large deficits in its initial years. Forecasts expect rising state revenue will eliminate those deficits over time. The governor has proposed more spending from the Permanent Fund and as-yet-unidentified budget cuts or new revenue to close the gap in the short term.

But approval of the 50-50 plan requires 14 of 20 state senators and 27 of 40 state representatives. Stutes and others said there aren’t enough votes right now.

The governor vetoed this year’s dividend in an attempt to incentivize the Legislature to act, and a bipartisan, bicameral working group has been trying to find a compromise that can pass the Legislature.

If the governor insists on his plan alone, that’s likely to cause those efforts to fail, leaving Alaskans with no 2021 dividend and a worse political fight next year, legislators said.

“I feel like he is really making this far more difficult than it needs to be,” Begich said.

“The working group has been focused all along on developing a proposal that can be supported by both the legislature and the public,” said Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer and a member of the working group.

“At this point, the governor’s advocacy efforts are more apt to influence the response to our forthcoming proposal, whether by Alaskans or by other members of the Alaska State House and Senate,” she said.

In response to a series of questions about the advertising campaign on Wednesday, the governor’s office provided a written statement saying its ads will be produced in-house and are “intended to educate Alaskans about Governor Dunleavy’s plan to constitutionally protect the Permanent Fund Dividend and the Power Cost Equalization.”

“When the governor introduced SJR 6, many legislators encouraged him to educate Alaskans about the 50-50 plan. This latest effort is a continuation of this educational process,” said Corey Allen Young, a spokesman for the governor. “The timing of this is reflective of the House Majority’s own survey that says 67% of Alaskans are unfamiliar with the governor’s plan. The Legislature Working Group is hearing testimony from Alaskans as they also understand that the better informed Alaskans are, the more likely we are to come up with a solution to constitutionally protect the Permanent Fund Dividend and the Power Cost Equalization.”

The size of the ad campaign is significant: In the budget that passed the Legislature this year, only $150,000 is set aside for educating Alaskans about the new ranked-choice voting system, and that amount may shrink if it costs more than expected to install.

Former Gov. Bill Walker conducted an extensive public outreach campaign during his attempts to reform the dividend program. That much larger informational effortsaw administration officials travel in person to events across the state.

Begich said there’s a significant difference in Dunleavy’s campaign: “You can’t question a TV ad or radio ad or an internet ad.”