OPINION: Finance co-chair doesn’t trust rural Alaska with early PFD

  • From left, Alaska state Reps. Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage, Jennifer Johnston, R-Anchorage, and Bart LeBon, R-Fairbanks, speak on the House floor before the start of the 2020 legislative session on Jan. 21 in Juneau. In an April 1 phone call, Johnston asserted that paying an early dividend would create problems by putting too much money in rural Alaska. (Photo/Becky Bohrer/AP)

“Have you ever been to the villages at dividend time?”

That was the question posed to me during a phone call from House Finance Co-Chair Jennifer Johnston of Anchorage on April 1, and it wasn’t an April Fool’s joke.

That morning I published an opinion column chiding the Legislature for failing to utilize the Permanent Fund to help Alaskans during the worst economic crisis in the state’s history by first canceling the Senate-approved supplemental dividend and then refusing to move up the distribution of the traditional annual payment to provide immediate relief.

Johnston asked me how long I’ve lived in Alaska (I learned 10 years is “not very long”), what I know about state finances and whether I was familiar with the federal CARES Act (I covered it in the column she was calling about).

She then asked the question at the top of this piece.

Without ever asking to be off the record, Johnston went on to state that part of the reasoning for not paying the dividend early was because it would be too much money in rural Alaska on top of the federal payment that was approved in the CARES Act. She further claimed the congressional delegation actually discouraged the Legislature from paying a spring dividend because they shared the same concerns.

Representatives for Rep. Don Young, Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Sen. Dan Sullivan all denied such a message was conveyed to the Legislature either by them or members of their staffs.

“We unequivocally deny that anyone in our office — including Senator Sullivan — made such a comment to anyone,” wrote his communications director Mike Anderson. “Furthermore, no one in our office, including Senator Sullivan, holds such offensive views.”

(I relayed the denials from the delegation to Johnston in a text message. She never responded.)

In Johnston’s view, “social services would be overwhelmed” in the villages and elsewhere if Alaskans were to receive their 2020 dividend now instead of in October.

You read that right. A key member of the legislative leadership and the conference committee that crafted the state budget did not favor even paying the PFD early because certain people may not spend it wisely.

Johnston’s odious reasoning is bad enough, but it is also a shame that the legislative leadership doesn’t apply the same standard to government spending as it does to the PFD. Imagine if government spending was evaluated on whether it is efficient, effective or necessary.

Now that you’re done laughing (or crying), the leadership decided against providing help now so they could have more money available later to not let Alaskans decide how to spend.

Johnston’s fellow Anchorage Republican and House Rules Chair Chuck Kopp wrote an op-ed claiming the leadership was being “smart and strategic,” which are evidently not qualities that Alaskans possess for themselves to choose how they would use an early distribution of the dividend to cushion the sudden blows of lost jobs, income and peace of mind.

A recent report by SmartAsset found Alaska ranks fifth-highest in terms of the most vulnerable jobs in the current economic crisis with 23 percent. That is almost 71,000 jobs and untold family members.

One sector not considered vulnerable in that report are government jobs, and Johnston doesn’t think state employees and their families need a dividend right now either, both in her comments to me and repeated on April 3 during a meeting of Commonwealth North.

Apparently Johnston believes they are being held harmless by this because nobody is being laid off. The possibility of spouses losing jobs or new expenses such as childcare with schools closed must not have entered her mind.

What Johnston sounds like is she doesn’t know anybody who has been hurt by this, she doesn’t have enough understanding or empathy for the working class to believe additional financial security would provide any benefit, and she doesn’t trust Alaska Natives in particular with an extra $1,000.

“Alaskans are very quick to have their hands out,” she said in closing to Commonwealth North.

I suppose we should be thankful bakeries are still open for to-go orders so that we may get some cake.

Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected].

Editor's note: Because of technical difficulties moderating individual comments, the Facebook comment feature has been turned off. Thank you for reading.

04/07/2020 - 5:25pm