Mike Doogan Enters The Grinder

Alaska’s Own Mike Doogan Reminisces About the Birth of the Permanent Fund


Medium Grind -- Commentary


         In 1977, I went to work for the House Special Committee on the Alaska Permanent Fund. The committee’s job was to go around the state asking what people wanted to do with some of the oil money that was about to flood in. Add that to ideas from other people – you’d be surprised how many had ideas about that— add the wisdom of consultants, then write bills for the governor and legislators to think about.

         As I wrote this, I realized it was much too tame. The state was about to come into a ton of money, more money than most people could imagine. Plenty of people wanted to get their hands on some. True, much of the testimony the committee heard was heartfelt and not self-interested, but a lot of it was gimme, gimme, gimme. Build us an airport, build us a bridge, put money in our bank, pay for this great idea for manufacturing glow-in-the-dark widgets that might seem a little wacky. The committee members heard all this and more — like preserving artifacts and tracking whales – in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Kotzebue and Juneau

         The committee had seven members, five Democrats and two Republicans. Four were from Anchorage (Clark Gruening, Russ Meekins, Bill Miles and Rick Urion) and one each from Ketchikan (Terry Gardner), Petersburg (Ernie Haugen) and Kotzebue (Leo Schaeffer). I can see each of them as they were then clear as a bell. I can pull up each of their voices. Three of them – Urion, Haugen and Schaeffer – are dead now, but they live on in my memory as they were then. I see the others once in a while today and they certainly have aged, much more than I have.

         I was the committee’s factotum: travel agent, hotel room renter, meeting venue arranger, bill draft overseer. And so on. I had no experience for the job. I was not long out of college, and had had only one full-time job, working for the Anchorage Times. I was worried that I would screw up big time. It's true that I lost one of the members for a while, fumbled the ball and had to keep one of the consultants from getting the shit beat out of him in an after hours joint and stuck my oar in when I shouldn't have a couple of times when the committee members were having a free-and-frank discussion. But I survived. So did the committee.

         The bill that created the permanent fund in 1976 didn't say anything about what to do with it. So after the hearings, I went to work on a bill to make the fund and its management a reality. Fortunately I got a lot of help from Jim Rhode, Speaker of the House Hugh Malone’s éminence grise. There were consultant reports to read, and lots of kibitzing to deal with, ideas from committee members and the occasional scrap with the legislative attorneys. All of this produced a bill that was introduced in the 1978 session. Then it was off to the races.

         (Were there three bills instead of one? Damned if I can remember. Turned out to be two additional bills, one creating a renewable resource fund and another to give loans in rural Alaska. But when did they show up? I really can't tell you.)

         I left to do other things. When I got back later, as an aide to Meekins, things were at a standstill.

         The House bill had gone through some changes since I'd seen it last, but it still put the safety of the money in the fund above spending it. And it still left to the legislature and the governor to decide what to do with the income from the fund’s investments.

         The Senate had its own proposal. The bill was introduced by the Senate Special Committee, chaired by Sen. George Hohman of Bethel. It provided a vehicle to thoroughly revamp the state loan programs. Many programs would have been abolished and then restored in a centralized Alaska Loan Programs Fund. In the end, the permanent fund would be used to give loans.

         Then Gov. Jay Hammond had a third idea: to give some money from the permanent fund’s earnings to each Alaskan. For some time he called that Alaska Inc., that bill didn’t go anywhere either. Then he came up with the idea of giving some of the money to each Alaskan as a dividend.

         In short, the whole thing was a Class A mess, a three-sided wrestling match, the only rules being the rules of the legislature, which are no rules at all. The impasse lasted two years and went into a third.

         I was there when the last dog was hung. Each year the bills were put into something called a free conference committee, which could slice and dice them any way it wanted. Somehow, probably because of my charm, good looks and knowledge of the three ideas of what to do with money, I ended up staffing the conference committees. After a lot of maneuvering and sleight of hand, push finally came to shove. I clearly remember that the big, wide wooden conference table looked like a paper typhoon had hit it. I can hear the proposals and counter proposals, and whispering among the staffers who were watching. I can see Sen. Clem Tillion drinking tea through a sugar cube, and hear the sighs of relief — including my own – when the work was finally done.

         I have thought about the permanent fund a lot and written about it some as a newspaper columnist. The dividend was one of the ideas that survived and is still being handed out today. There have been changes in the fund itself, but it is going strong; it is $52 billion right now.

         Many of the people who had more to do with the final shape of the permanent fund than I did are dead now: Malone, Rhode, Hammond, Hohman, too many to count. But not too many to remember.

Publisher's Note: I'm proud to say I worked for Mike Doogan in the Legislature, and even more proud to call him a friend. His contributions to Alaska, as a legislative staffer, legislator and, of course, as the state's best writer are impossible to measure, but they are at least a little evident in that fact that Alaskans affectionately know him as simply "Doogan." He's that good. Like Sting, Jordan, Brando and Batman, one name is all it takes. I am happy to report that the state's favorite curmudgeon is not only alive, but is kicking as hard as ever, and I am honored that he has dipped a toe back into the writing pool by way of Grinder News. If we're all very lucky, he'll wade in a little deeper. Welcome back, Doogan.