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First-day PFD filings are way up — PICK, CLICK, GIVE: Applicants can spread the wealth to 333 charities.

Anchorage Daily News – January 2, 2009

What were you doing at midnight on New Year’s Eve?

Dancing? Drinking? Toasting and getting kissed?

Then you were not among the hundreds of Alaskans who chose to welcome 2009 with fingers poised over a computer keyboard, eager to apply for the 2009 Permanent Fund dividend.

The application period opened at 12:01 a.m. Thursday and closes March 31.

In the first hour after midnight last year, 807 people filed online applications, according to Deborah Bitney, director of the Permanent Fund Dividend Division. By 2 p.m. last Jan. 1, 10,000 had applied.

But this year’s numbers crushed that.

As of 2:47 p.m. Thursday, the count at the PFD Web site was 18,634.

By 6:14 p.m., it had ballooned to 26,772.

Bitney was delighted. Most of those applying online were using the “electronic signature” option, she said, which means greatly reduced paperwork and snail mail traffic for her division.

There’s no obvious advantage to applying extra early. The advantage in terms of collecting the dividend goes to those who apply any time in January for direct deposit of the money into a bank account.

Exact dates hadn’t been set as of Wednesday for when the state will pay the dividend, but a division spokeswoman said people who request direct deposit will get the money in early October; paper checks will be mailed in November.

How much will it be? No one knows, but almost certainly much less than the record $2,069 paid out last year, not counting the $1,200 energy rebate add-on. The dividend is calculated by averaging investment profits of the Permanent Fund for five years, so the tanking stock market won’t have as disastrous an effect on the payout as it has on, say, individual 401(k)s.

There’s a new wrinkle in this year’s application process: a charitable contributions checkoff available only to those filing online.

A law authorizing the checkoff, sponsored by Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, and supported by the Rasmuson Foundation, was signed into law last year. It allows recipients who submit online applications to have part or all of their dividend sent to one or more listed nonprofit groups, said Jordan Marshall, project manager for Rasmuson.

The law contains very explicit requirements for being included on the list of eligible groups, Marshall said. For instance, the law says, all board members must be volunteers who live in Alaska and the group must receive at least $100,000 or 5 percent of its annual receipts from contributions.

Political organizations are not eligible.

There are 333 nonprofits on the list this year, said Bitney. She expects a lot more next year. The timing of the legislation meant the application period for groups for 2009 was only two weeks.

As part of its support for the charitable checkoff, Rasmuson gave $900,000 to the state and others to help pay start-up and promotion costs, Marshall said.

Marshall said a media campaign by the Nerland Agency, sponsored by the Alaska Mental Health Trust, Conoco Phillips and Rasmuson, has been urging Alaskans for weeks to “Pick. Click. Give.” A press release from Kathy Day for the Foraker Group, a support umbrella for Alaska nonprofits, urges people to use “social media” to spread the word. Information about the program can be found on Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. And the program has its own blog.

The goal is to encourage everyone who gets the dividend to donate something — money can be given in $25 increments. “We’re hoping to expand individual philanthropy in the state,” Marshall said. “Just imagine if everyone gave even a little.”

Lawmakers approved the checkoff for three years. Unless they vote to continue it, the option will go away, Marshall said.

Picking, clicking and giving requires applicants to respond to an on-screen prompt after completing the usual application. (In addition to the charitable donations option, the prompt allows veterans to have their contact information sent to veterans’ groups.)

Administering the new program “has been quite a challenge,” Bitney said Wednesday. Choosing nonprofits to receive a donation isn’t quite as streamlined as it might have been. The law requires that eligible groups be listed in random order, Bitney said. Not alphabetically.

Online instructions Thursday for searching the list of charities were not as user-friendly as they might have been and Bitney said some tweaks may be made to the program.