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The state House on Tuesday voted down a plan to phase out the senior citizens' longevity bonus program. But the issue could come up for another vote today, the final day of this year's part of the two-year legislative session.
Only 13 of the 38 representatives present for the vote favored going along with a five-year phase-out of the program that sends monthly checks to eligible older Alaskans.
"There already is a phase-out program of the longevity bonus, and it's called death," said Rep. Bob Lynn, an Anchorage Republican. "And not so facetiously, we are dying as fast as we can."
Lynn, 70, does not receive a bonus, but promised during his campaign to protect the program.
Rep. Cheryll Heinze, an Anchorage Republican, said she could not take the payments away from Alaskans who had crafted retirement budgets around them and are too old to go back to work.
"Are we going to look them in the eye and say, 'OK, you've gotta go, even though you're going to lose your home?' " Heinze asked.
Senior citizen groups proposed the phase-out as an alternative to Gov. Frank Murkowski's plan to save about $44 million by ending the program altogether this year.
The program provides monthly payments, which range up to $250 depending on when people turned 65. Several years ago, the state began phasing out the payments, but grandfathered in seniors living in Alaska who turned 65 by the end of 1996. Bonuses are not based on income.
Senate President Gene Therriault's office proposed saving money by allowing the bonuses only for those with limited incomes. Senior groups rejected the idea, saying many older Alaskans perceived it as welfare, and the income limits were too low.
Rep. Norm Rokeberg, an Anchorage Republican, urged his colleagues to go along with the phase-out as senior groups had asked.
Chip Wagoner, a lobbyist for the Pioneers of Alaska, said seniors would have a stronger negotiating position if the bill passed. He believes it would be easier to muster a three-quarters vote of the Legislature to override a veto of funding if the phase-out is in place.
Murkowski has threatened to line-item veto all funding for the bonuses in the 2004 fiscal year, which starts July 1, since lawmakers have not passed a proposed sales tax to pay for that and other programs.
Administration officials also said earlier they did not support a five-year phase-out. They said they would have accepted a two-year phase-out - but only if the Legislature also passed the sales tax.
The senior group AARP endorsed the five-year phase-out as an attempted compromise, but a volunteer lobbyist for the group, Marie Darlin, did not object to the House's rejection of that plan.
"We know it was a tough vote for them," Darlin said.
Rep. Sharon Cissna, an Anchorage Democrat, said she believes the Legislature could muster the votes to override a Murkowski veto.
"I think it has to stay," Cissna said. "I think politically in this state you're dead meat if you don't keep this program."
Rep. Bill Williams, a Saxman Republican, gave notice he may bring the bill up for reconsideration today, so the outcome could change.
Those voting for the five-year phase-out were Republicans Williams; Rokeberg; John Coghill of North Pole; Jim Whitaker, Hugh "Bud" Fate and Jim Holm of Fairbanks; Mike Hawker and Ralph Samuels of Anchorage; Vic Kohring of Wasilla; Paul Seaton of Homer; Bruce Weyhrauch of Juneau; Peggy Wilson of Wrangell; and Kelly Wolf of Kenai.
Democratic Reps. Reggie Joule of Kotzebue and Mary Kapsner of Bethel were absent.