Legislature OKs senior aid

First session outside Juneau convenes, adjourns in one day

Posted: Wednesday, June 27, 2007

ANCHORAGE - Alaska lawmakers on Tuesday approved an increase in benefit payments for low-income seniors during the first session of the state Legislature held outside Juneau.

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The special session lasted about seven hours and allowed lawmakers to finish business they failed to complete in the 121-day regular session that ended May 16.

Both the House and Senate approved a measure that increases benefits for about 10,000 low-income seniors, providing monthly benefits of anywhere from $125 to $250, based on income.

Senate Bill 4 was sponsored by Sen. Donny Olson, D-Nome, in the Senate and Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, in the House. Juneau's delegation, including Reps. Beth Kerttula and Andrea Doll and Sen. Kim Elton, were all co-sponsors of the bill.

It replaces the $120 a month that most seniors currently receive under the SeniorCare program, which expires June 30.

The bill now goes to Gov. Sarah Palin for her signature.

Lawmakers called themselves back for the session - the first ever held outside Juneau - after House Republicans failed to act on senior benefits in the regular session.

Both the House and Senate had different versions of a bill extending benefits to seniors during the regular session.

The Senate's version of the bill would have funded the program in a tiered system and would have provided money for Denali KidCare program, a Medicaid program run by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

The House bill would have expanded the program further in exchange for cutting the longevity bonus, a cash payment to seniors not based on need. That program remains in state statute but has been unfunded for four years.

That deal fell through when many Democrats and some Republicans voted to keep the bonus. Republican leaders yanked it from the House floor and reassigned it to the Rules Committee.

On Tuesday, the House made rewrites to the Senate bill and increased payouts for seniors but removed the provision for the state's Medicaid program because it was funded in a different bill.

Under the amended senior funding bill passed, seniors with incomes less than $12,770 a year would receive $250 a month. Seniors would receive $175 a month if they have incomes between $12,770 and $17,240, and $125 a month for incomes between $17,240 and $19,155.

The Senate quickly approved the bill with no changes, essentially ending the session in about seven hours.

About 30 people protested for senior care benefits outside the Egan Convention Center in downtown Anchorage when members of the House arrived Tuesday morning to begin work.

Both the Egan Center and the downtown Legislative Information Office, where committees met, proved to be popular draws for the public. Overflowing crowds greeted lawmakers at both venues.

House and Senate leaders called for this special session to be held in Anchorage since a majority of lawmakers live in or near state's largest city.

Juneau, the state capital, is accessible only by boat or plane. Politicians said it was a prudent move since the session was not expected to last more than three days at most.

While the location did not reinvigorate debate about a possible capital move, the issue may linger. Lawmakers could be called into another special session this fall, perhaps again in Anchorage, to re-examine the Petroleum Production Tax passed in 2005.

• Pat Forgey of the Juneau Empire contributed to this story.

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