Senior citizens would have to prove financial need to continue getting monthly longevity bonuses under a measure being considered by the Senate Finance Committee. Dozens of older Alaskans testified against the idea Wednesday night.
Senate Bill 117 would cut off the payments to single seniors making more than $16,824 a year, or couples making more than $22,716. A single adult could have assets, such as a savings account, of up to $4,000. A couple could have assets of $6,000.
Joe Balash, an aide to Senate President Gene Therriault, said the income guidelines were proposed as an alternative to Gov. Frank Murkowski's proposal to eliminate the program altogether.
"We heard over and over in public testimony ... that there are folks out there that genuinely need this monthly check in order to make ends meet," Balash said.
But seniors told the Finance Committee they do not like the bill. Some complained it would turn the longevity bonuses into a welfare payments. Others said the income limits were too tight.
"I find this bill degrading and an insult to the pioneers involved in this program," said Glen Franklin of Fairbanks.
Delisa Culpepper said her 78-year-old mother would not qualify under the income limits, but would have trouble paying the $750 a month her prescriptions cost if she loses the bonus.
"She thinks she needs to get a job," Culpepper said. "That's just something we should not do to our seniors across the state."
Currently there is no limit on the amount of money an older Alaskan can make and still receive monthly payments, which range up to $250 depending on when people turned 65. Several years ago, legislators decided to phase out the payments, but grandfathered in seniors who turned 65 by 1996 and were living in Alaska then.
Murkowski proposed saving about $47 million next year by eliminating the program altogether.
The Senate Finance Committee proposal would keep the program but save about $27 million in fiscal year 2004 by basing eligibility on financial need. Currently enrolled seniors would continue to get the checks through August.
Murkowski said Wednesday he would accept a needs-based approach.
The income limits under the Finance Committee bill are about $4,500 a year higher than the limits for senior citizens to qualify for the Adult Public Assistance welfare program.
Some types of income and assets, such as permanent fund dividends and some Native corporation dividends, would not count toward the income and asset limits.
Balash said about 4,300 people would qualify for longevity bonuses under the new guidelines. About 18,000 Alaskans receive the payments now.