Alaska editorial: Assistance should be based on financial need, not longevity

Posted: Sunday, April 22, 2007

The state House came close earlier this month to doing the right thing for the financial future of thousands of Alaska's senior citizens. But the House fell one vote short of eliminating the unfunded longevity bonus program. The vote came on an amendment to legislation to start up a better senior aid program based on financial need, not longevity.

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Better that the state give out millions of dollars a year to all seniors - present and future - who need the money, rather than only to those seniors who qualified for the longevity bonus before the program shut down to new applicants in 1996.

Better that the state start the new senior aid program honestly, without misleading seniors that keeping the unfunded longevity bonus on the books means it might someday come back. Although Gov. Sarah Palin and some legislators campaigned last year to restore the longevity bonus, it doesn't look like they have enough votes to fund the program, nor should they. Its time has passed.

The state cannot afford both programs; legislators need to pick one.

The senior longevity checks started in 1972, but former Gov. Frank Murkowski coldly stopped the payments in 2003. Restarting the program may sound good to the estimated 12,000 or so seniors who would receive the checks again, but it would expose the state to a legal challenge that could mean reopening the costly program to thousands of new applicants. That risk, plus the poor public policy of giving away money based on longevity rather than financial need, are reasons enough to finish off the program by dropping it from state statutes.

Instead of continuing to promise that someday the longevity checks may restart at $100 to $250 a month, depending on when a senior qualified for the cash, the proposed senior aid program would pay out $125 to $250 a month to almost 11,000 seniors, depending on where applicants fit on the income scale. It's the better answer.

Don't take our word for it. AARP Alaska says the same thing. "One of the principles we operate under is that, given the fact that government funds will always be limited, what funds are available should go to those who are most in need," says the senior citizens lobbying organization.

Even if lawmakers fail to get up the political nerve to drop the unfunded longevity bonus from the law, at least they appear likely to pass a senior aid program. The measure has wide support in the House, and the Senate passed a similar bill April 10. That's encouraging.

Also encouraging is that both the House and Senate versions would raise the income limits for children and pregnant women to qualify for medical coverage under Denali KidCare. The legislation would add perhaps 1,500 kids and moms-to-be to the state-run program, grabbing more than two federal dollars for every dollar the state spends.

But House Bill 198 is the better piece of legislation. The House version would pay more money to more needy seniors, with higher income limits for applicants. It would allow seniors at 175 percent of the federal poverty level to sign up for state assistance; the Senate caps eligibility at 150 percent of poverty income. The higher limits in the House bill would allow an additional 2,000 seniors into the program.

The House would pay $125 to $250 a month; the Senate sets the payments at $100 to $175 a month.

And the House bill would repeal the longevity bonus statutes, ending the annual debate about restoring the program.

House members who voted to drop the longevity bonus repealer should think again about what's fair to Alaska's neediest seniors and think again how they can justify restoring longevity bonus checks to middle- and upper-income seniors who qualified a decade ago while ignoring low-income seniors today and tomorrow.

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