Alaska editorial: A needs-based program better than restoring bonus

Posted: Friday, March 23, 2007

This editorial appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

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Instead of restoring the longevity bonus, which paid millions to only some seniors, the core House leadership wants the state to distribute monthly checks to all low-income seniors.

Yes, it would be a needs-based program. Offensive words to some, but the right words. A community should first help those in need, and government is the means for carrying out a community's responsibilities.

Yes, it is contrary to the governor's campaign promise to restore the longevity bonus program, which handed out payments regardless of a recipient's income, but better that the state distribute cash to needy seniors than send checks to those not in need.

Yes, it would add to the budget, but not as much as full restoration of the longevity bonus. Most important, the proposed senior assistance program would make a long-term difference in the lives of thousands of Alaskans who greatly need the help.

A strong contingent of House Republican leaders is behind the change: Speaker John Harris of Valdez, Majority Leader Ralph Samuels of Anchorage, House Finance Committee co-chairmen Kevin Meyer of Anchorage and Mike Chenault of Nikiski, Rules Chairman John Coghill of North Pole, and the prime sponsor, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Mike Hawker of Anchorage. Republican Rep. Anna Fairclough of Eagle River and Democratic Reps. Mike Doogan of Anchorage and Richard Foster of Nome added their names March 16 to the list of supporters.

Hopefully, House Bill 198 picks up even more support after its first public hearing on Thursday in the House Health, Education and Social Services Committee.

Restoring the longevity bonus means spending an estimated $34 million next year to hand out checks to perhaps 13,000 Alaska seniors. Gov. Sarah Palin pledged during last year's campaign to bring back the popular program that her predecessor, Frank Murkowski, had stopped in 2003.

But bringing back the program would bring back the unfairness and legal uncertainties of giving away state money to seniors who got into the program by the 1996 cut-off, but no money to anyone after that. What if the courts decide such an arbitrary line for state spending is unconstitutional, opening the program to new applicants? The cost would rise dramatically, beyond what the state could afford.

And bringing back the program would restore the practice of giving millions in public funds to seniors who could use the gift but, honestly, don't need it. With so many other problems in the state - schools, health care, public safety - the Legislature should write checks for needs, not wants.

The proposed senior assistance program would distribute monthly checks of $125, $175 or $250, depending on each household's income as a percentage of federal poverty guidelines. The amounts are comparable to the old longevity bonus checks, and would apply to all eligible seniors - not just those lucky ones who qualified by 1996.

The program also would be similar to the low-income SeniorCare payments established by Gov. Murkowski after he stopped the longevity bonus checks. But the payments would be higher for the lowest-income households. Meanwhile, the SeniorCare program will end June 30 unless extended by lawmakers.

That makes this the right time to make a change.

It's estimated the new assistance program would cost $20 million a year. That's less than bringing back the longevity bonus, but still a sizable commitment to helping seniors.

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