The House of Representatives Monday passed its first bill of the year, giving unanimous endorsement to an extension of the state’s popular Senior Benefits Program for another four years.
“We want our senior citizens to have peace of mind knowing these modest benefit payments will continue to offset high costs of living,” said Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, after the bill’s 37-0 passage on the House floor.
Ironically, Hawker was unable to vote on his own bill.
He’s currently in Anchorage, recovering from prostate cancer. From there he’s shepherded the bill through the committee process.
The bill is clearly on a fast track, getting its first committee hearing last week, then its second before the House Finance Committee Monday at 9 a.m. before reaching the full House when it convened at 11 a.m.
The Senior Benefit Program will pay seniors with incomes of up to 175 percent of the federal poverty level monthly payments. The poorest of them will get as much as $250 per month, but the average is about $160 per month.
The average age of those getting the payments is 75, with the oldest recipient 105, according the Department of Health and Social Services Division of Public Assistance.
“The Alaska Senior Benefits Payment Program is one of the state’s most successful public assistance commitments,” Hawker said.
The program was to have expired July 1, but the bill passed Monday will continue it another four years. Hawker said that was to ensure the program didn’t become an entitlement program, such as the state’s previous “Longevity Bonus,” which angered many when it was eliminated.
The state is not obligated to fund it if it does not have the money, he said, but the state currently has ample resources to pay for the benefits.
“No one wants our fixed-income elders confronted with the impossible choice of paying for food, or medicine, or home heat.”
The bill’s new fiscal note estimates it will cost $20.4 million next year, and $23-$24 million in each of the next three years.
The bill now goes to the Senate.
• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or firstname.lastname@example.org.