Democrats in the state House of Representatives won an unusual floor fight Tuesday as they united to stymie an attempt to kill the state's longevity bonus program.
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House Minority Leader Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, urged her colleagues to keep the program for Alaska's pioneers alive.
"It was a very real promise, which people relied on," she said.
The House on Tuesday considered a bill to re-authorize a popular senior assistance program, sponsored by Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, that would provide payments for poor seniors. A Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Donny Olson, D-Nome, would do the same thing.
Hawker's House bill, however, also included a controversial repeal of the longevity bonus program, which has been on the books but not funded in recent years.
The bonus was ended by former Gov. Frank Murkowski, but many candidates last year campaigned on bringing it back. They included Kerttula and Gov. Sarah Palin.
The bonus would provide cash payments of as much as $250 a month for the estimated 12,000 to 13,000 Alaskans now at least 75 years old who would qualify.
When Hawker's bill came to the House floor, it presented bonus supporters with an unpleasant choice: If they chose to support senior assistance, it would come at the cost of killing the longevity bonus.
Democrats objected to killing that program, and they were joined by some prominent Republicans, including Palin.
"The governor supports bringing back funding for the longevity bonus," said John Bitney, Palin's legislative affairs director.
Another key Republican supporting the longevity bonus, Rep. Bob Lynn of Anchorage, proposed amending Hawker's senior assistance bill to remove the repeal of the longevity bonus statutes.
"We were supporting the amendment to leave those statutes in place" in hopes the Legislature will later approve funding, Bitney said.
Most Republicans sided with Hawker, but enough supported the longevity bonus that the amendment preserving it passed 20-17 despite Republican control of the body. While Republicans voted 15-8 against the amendment, Democrats voted 12-2 for it.
When the amendment passed, the House leadership gave the bill a new referral, to the Rules Committee, instead of taking the full bill to a vote without the longevity bonus.
The Rules Committee is often referred to in the Capitol as "the place where bills go to die."
Even for those who supported the longevity bonus, it was a tough vote.
Rep. Andrea Doll, D-Juneau, supported the amendment but said she supported both senior assistance and the longevity bonus.
If forced to, she said, she'd go for the one that that was most needed by poor people.
"If I had to choose, I'd choose the greater good," she said, meaning the senior assistance program.
Later Tuesday, the Senate adopted Olson's senior assistance bill, with no attempt to kill the longevity bonus. Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Kodiak, supported the amendment and said she expects the Senate's senior assistance bill will be how the program now gets funded.
"That's coming over," she said. "That might be the final vehicle for this, instead of Rep. Hawker's bill."
The Senate easily approved its bill, despite opposition from Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, leader of the Senate Republican minority. He said the bill spent too much, expanded the current senior assistance program and allowed inflation adjustments as well.
"It seems like there is a whole lot of inflating in here when we are heading into deficit very soon," he said.
Olson said re-authorization of the program, scheduled to end this year, was only a modest cost over the current year.
The senior assistance program approved by the Senate is expected to cost about $20 million next year, Olson said. Bitney said the governor's proposed longevity bonus would cost about $30 million next year.
Pat Forgey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.