Alaska’s seniors who count on checks from the state’s Senior Benefits program narrowly avoided seeing the popular program end in the end-of-the-session turmoil.
And some of the state’s neediest seniors will be getting the benefits for the first time.
That’s thanks to action by the Senate, with which the House of Representatives reluctantly agreed in closing days of the regular session that ended Sunday.
All three Juneau legislators co-sponsored the Senior Benefits legislation.
Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, prime sponsor of the House bill to keep the Senior Benefits program going, was unhappy with the Senate’s expansion of the program, but recommended the House go ahead and agree to the extra expense.
“I find some solace that it is gong to the most indigent, elder Alaskans,” he said.
The Senior Benefits program was scheduled to end at the end of the current fiscal year unless it was renewed. House Bill 16, given final approval by the House of Representatives Friday evening during a session that went past midnight, kept the program alive.
The controversy came when the Senate boosted the program’s cost by making residents of the state’s Pioneer, veterans’ and nursing homes eligible for the payments. Those Alaskans generally get a personal needs allowance they get to keep, but the rest of their income goes to the state to pay for the cost of their care.
The question, said Hawker, is “how much of their very limited resources on a monthly basis do we let them keep, without taking, for their cost of care.”
Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, said expanding the allowances would provide more dignity for the elderly, allowing them to buy small incidental items, such as birthday gifts for grandchildren.
Currently just more than 10,000 Alaskans qualify for Senior Benefits payments, with monthly checks of up to $250 going to the most needy.
The program costs about $20 million a year, with the increased personal needs allowance estimated to cost an additional $500,000.
The program’s extension passed unanimously in both houses, with the House agreeing to the program expansion without forcing a conference committee showdown.
Hawker said challenging the Senate’s version of the bill in conference committee would mean arguing to take a stipend away from some of the state’s poorest, elderly citizens.
“I’m not sure I want to argue that point on that conference committee,” Hawker said.
The bill now awaits Gov. Sean Parnell’s signature.
• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 586-4816 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.