Battle of wills led to senior assistance special session

Posted: Sunday, June 24, 2007

I'm annoyed about Tuesday's special session.

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I'm annoyed that a capital reporter should have to fly to Anchorage to cover a legislative session. But I'm more peeved that this special session is taking place at all. There was no missing information or late-breaking event to explain the Legislature's failure to re-authorize a state assistance program for low-income seniors in May.

Instead, to quote former columnist-turned-legislator Mike Doogan, "It was a combination of ideology, political posturing and pure wooly-headedness."

A brief history: Shortly after former Gov. Frank Murkowski vetoed $44 million for longevity bonus payments in 2003, he established a cash assistance program for low-income seniors.

Lawmakers later authorized the program and gave it an expiration date of June 30, 2007. With 7,000 low-income seniors relying on the $120 monthly state assistance checks, most observers expected legislators would extend the senior assistance program during this past session.

But for the still-simmering legacy of the Longevity Bonus Program, they would have.

Many seniors, along with legislative Democrats and a smattering of Republicans, viewed Murkowski's veto as a betrayal. But now, four years later, most advocates concede that the Longevity Bonus Program was an inefficient way of helping needy seniors.

Many point out that longevity bonus checks went to people like Wally Hickel, Alaska's millionaire former governor, while leaving out needy seniors who happened to turn 65 after the 1996 enrollment cutoff for the Longevity Bonus Program.

"As desirable as it may be to give free money to rich people, I just can't get there," said Rep. Mike Hawker in April. Hawker, a Republican, sponsored a bill to extend and expand needs-based senior assistance.

Hawker's bill also repeals the longevity bonus statute, and therein lay the problem. A group of 12 Democrats and eight Republicans, including some who thought Hawker's bill was too generous, amended Hawker's bill on the House floor to keep the longevity bonus statute in place.

No dice, said House Rules Chairman John Coghill, who had the bill sent back to his committee instead of advancing for a final House vote. Leaving the longevity bonus statute on the books creates an expectation that the program will be funded, he said.

"It's dead," Hawker said as he stalked off the floor, expressing frustration that his bill had, in his view, been sabotaged. That was April 10, and the bill never re-emerged from the Rules Committee.

House Democrats made three attempts to salvage needs-based senior assistance, but lost on party-line votes.

"Maybe it was just a dangerous game of chicken (we played) earlier in the session," Rep. Beth Kerttula said in a candid moment on the House floor. As leader of the House minority Democrats, Kerttula had led the fight to retain the longevity bonus statute.

Ultimately, a battle of wills stalemated a program nearly everyone claimed to support. Egos were elevated at the expense of Alaska's most vulnerable citizens.

A measure of blame also belongs with the administration. Embroiled in her gas pipeline legislation, Gov. Sarah Palin made little effort to break the legislative logjam on senior assistance.

Her commissioner of health and social services, Karleen Jackson, likewise offered milquetoast leadership on the issue. When asked her opinion on the proper income cutoff, for example, Jackson told a House committee, "You're asking for the wisdom of Solomon."

The plan for Tuesday's special session, I'm told, is for the House to approve Senate Bill 4. That bill, which the Senate approved in April, provides more generous needs-based cash aid than the current senior assistance program but less generous aid than Hawker's bill.

If all goes according to plan, the House will amend the bill for technical purposes, the Senate will concur with the House version, and it'll be over in less than a day. Let's hope no one brings up the fact that the bill does not repeal the longevity bonus statute.

Lawmakers also may not want to mention that the measure is not an appropriation bill. The Legislature apparently intends for Palin to spend an estimated $17 million on the program illegally - at least until lawmakers approve a supplemental spending bill.

• Rebecca Braun is publisher and editor of the Alaska Budget Report, an independent publication covering state finance and policy. She can be contacted at rbraun@alaska.com.



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