Columns 2016

To cut or not to cut the PFD check

Anyone catching even the slightest glimpse of my checkbook knows my ability with finances is, to put it mildly, limited. That I’m able to live on my own and pay my own bills this late in my life is totally due to other people who understand finances and helped me save some of that money flowing so easily through my fingers. So when I talk about our PFD checks, I speak from a human perspective and not a technical knowledge of high finance.

In most of Bush Alaska, a PFD check is treasured. It provides that extra boost that helps get many families through a winter with heat and food. Or it might provide that little extra infusion of cash that allows for a brighter Christmas for their kids. Whatever it provides, it is a critical component of many Bush economies. Gov. Walker’s actions in limiting the amount of the PFD check this year will definitely hurt more in the Bush than just about anywhere on the road system. The people who can probably least afford to lose that extra money are the ones who will disproportionately be slammed by this cut.

If you live in a city or are on the road system, everything you do is cheaper than if you lived in the Bush. And while there are certainly families in every city and town in this state for whom that PFD check is critical, the reality is that we can get to a Costco or Sam’s Club without getting on a plane and paying – in some instances – almost as much to fly from a village to Anchorage as many of us pay to fly from Anchorage to the East Coast.

The existence of so many small villages in Alaska has long been a subject of heated debate. There are those who think the cost of keeping those villages alive is simply not worth it. Those who oppose the cost of education and health care in small villages can’t comprehend why those people won’t simply move to an urban area and have done with it.

Many people in our villages find this argument a bit much given that the only reason they live in small villages as opposed to their traditional nomadic lifestyle is because when Westerners arrived, they required people to settle in one location so their children could go to school. But at least they are living on their land surrounded by the flora and fauna that support their traditional lifestyles. They have no wish to leave it.

Having lived for almost 30 years in a village, I can totally understand the sentiment that keeps Native peoples in their homeland. If you’ve never lived in a Native village, you can be hard pressed to understand how much strength and sustenance the land, seas and animals provide to the people who rely on them for day to day existence.

So if I understand all this, if I understand the hardships the lowered check amount will cause in our villages especially, why am I still torn over the issue of the PFD checks? I’m still torn because despite my total lack of basic financial acumen, I still can see two columns of numbers – one the state’s income and one the state’s outgo – and understand that the negative column so far outweighs the positive column that all Alaskans should be very worried. Given our Legislature’s inability to do their job and put Alaska’s financial house in order, cutting the PFD check seems like an inevitable move.

I’m not quite sure what the recent lawsuit by Anchorage Democratic Sen. Bill Wielechowski and Alaska politicians, Clem Tillion and Rick Halford, hopes to accomplish if it is not accompanied by some reasonable hope for a sensible fiscal plan actually getting through the Legislature. Otherwise, while Alaska is drowning in debt, this lawsuit just seems to push us further underwater. Absent a viable fiscal plan with a real chance of passing in the Legislature, their lawsuit seems like just another move in the political chess game our state finances have become.

It appears that instead of working for the good of all Alaskans, our legislators are playing a political tit for tat game. Their objective is to be the political party that wins the most. That’s rather sad. It would seem to me that their ultimate test of success should be whether or not Alaska wins.