Palin extends senior benefits through July

Democrats seek SeniorCare debate for special session

Posted: Thursday, May 24, 2007

Gov. Sarah Palin announced Wednesday that she would use her emergency powers to keep the state's SeniorCare program running for at least one month or until a long-term solution can be found.

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Meanwhile, House Democratic Leader Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, and other members of her caucus called on Palin to add senior assistance to the agenda for a possible special session of the Legislature this fall.

The Democrats held a joint press conference in Juneau and Anchorage.

House Republicans refused to fund the $10.3 million SeniorCare program when the popular measure got caught up in a battle over the Longevity Bonus, which Palin also supported.

"I consider it a terrible loss that we didn't see SeniorCare come out of the end of the session," Kerttula said.

Palin said this fall might be too far away to reinstate the program, and that she would move on her own to make sure vulnerable seniors weren't cut short.

"Our seniors cannot go hungry," she said. "We cannot wait for a special session in the fall - it will be too late to address this emergency situation," she said in a press release.

House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez, said he had no objection to Palin's action.

"I don't really have a problem with the governor doing that at all," he said.

Sixty-nine-year-old Kenny Rogers of Juneau welcomed resurrection of the program. He has been receiving SeniorCare payments and was just set to reapply when he heard the program was ending.

Part-time work has sometimes kept Rogers above the eligibility line, at least for now, he said.

"You just wonder what you're going to do when the time comes that you can't work," he said. "Sometimes I don't feel like it even now."

A bill re-authorizing SeniorCare, set to expire July 1, made it through the Senate and to the floor of the House of Representatives in April. That re-authorization contained what some legislators called a "poison pill," however.

Re-authorizing SeniorCare would have meant eliminating the state's unfunded Longevity Bonus program, they said.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers, many of whom had campaigned in support of the bonus, amended the SeniorCare bill to remove the so-called poison pill, leaving a faint hope that money could be appropriated.

Republicans opposed that, however. Harris sent the SeniorCare bill to the Rules Committee under the chairmanship of Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole. It languished there for the remainder of the session.

In an end-of-session press release, Coghill said seniors were adequately taken care of with numerous other programs.

"While it is true we have moved away from cash payments that don't have any strings attached to them, we have bulked up our response level to specific needs to make sure those needs are taken care of," Coghill said.

"We believe seniors' needs are more than adequately funded in a multitude of state programs," Coghill said.

Rep. Mike Doogan, D-Anchorage, said SeniorCare expiration would be the first time since 1972 that the state didn't provide cash help for seniors.

Kerttula said she found it hard to believe that Republicans would let the program die.

"It never occurred to me that we would be at this point without a (SeniorCare) program," she said.

Harris agreed with Kerttula that if SeniorCare had made it to the floor, it would likely have passed, given the program's broad support.

"I think the majority of the Legislature's intention was to try to do something for seniors," he said.

The program will likely cost about $800,000 a month to operate and would be funded with a supplemental budget later, said Sherry Hill, legislative liaison for the Department of Health and Social Services. Emergency regulations to implement it are not being drafted, she said.

When SeniorCare was first created by former Gov. Frank Murkowski to replace the Longevity Bonus, it was also done through "emergency" regulation, Hill noted.

• Pat Forgey can be reached at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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