One high-profile item in Gov. Sarah Palin's spending plan is conspicuously absent from the version of the operating budget that will be introduced in the House Finance Committee on Thursday.
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A subcommittee this week removed new funding for the now-defunct longevity bonus: a $34 million cash payment program for Alaska senior citizens that Palin had pledged to reinstate.
Instead, several House Republicans are touting a plan they say would cost less and cast a wider financial safety net for seniors who truly need the assistance.
Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, sponsored the legislation that sets up an estimated $20 million needs-based cash assistance program. The bill was introduced on the House Floor on Wednesday.
Like the old longevity bonus, eliminated by former Gov. Frank Murkowski four years ago, the proposed Alaska Senior Assistance Program would provide monthly cash payments to Alaska seniors. But unlike the old program, for which enrollment has been frozen since 1996, the payments ranging from $125 to $250 would be available to all qualifying seniors.
Under Hawker's proposal, seniors must demonstrate their income is no more than 135 percent of the 2005 federal poverty level, which translates to $17,240 a year for a one-person household.
"I just cannot support a program that gives free money to rich people and discriminates totally, denies a penny to the most impoverished seniors in the state," Hawker said.
Palin's spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said the governor had not looked at the House proposal yet and continues to push for reinstatement of the longevity bonus.
"The longevity bonus program was a state promise that was broken and she's not giving up on the issue," said Leighow.
The program is due to end this year. Palin has introduced legislation to reinstate it, without the prescription drug component. She is proposing that seniors who qualify for senior care and the longevity bonus could choose which one they want, should lawmakers approve both programs.
Hawker said he would prefer a program that is eligible for federal Medicaid reimbursement, which cash payment plans are not, but he is looking to strike a balance.
"I'm looking for a compromise position that will assist the governor to come as close as possible to her attempt to restart the non-needs based longevity bonus and reconcile that position with a number of folks who don't want any of these programs - people who want to maximize the federal leverage," Hawker said.
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