Democrats try to force special session

Minority wants to restore Longevity Bonus for senior Alaskans

Posted: Friday, July 11, 2003

Democrat lawmakers have banded together to demand GOP leaders consider a special session to restore the senior citizen Longevity Bonus Program that will end in August.

As many as 20 Democrats in the Legislature sent letters to Republican leaders requesting a poll of its members for a special session. Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis, an Anchorage Democrat, asked that the session be held prior to the second week in August.

Under state law, legislative leaders must poll their members if at least 25 percent of the Legislature requests it. Senate President Gene Therriault, a North Pole Republican, plans on conducting such a poll but has not specified a time, an aide said.

"There is a statute, and Senator Therriault will comply with the statute," said chief of staff Joe Balash.

Democrats earlier asked Republican leaders to call the special session to override action by Gov. Frank Murkowski to veto $44 million for the program from the budget. But that request went unheeded.

"We asked politely, and now we state firmly: Do right by Alaska's pioneers, protect the longevity bonus program," House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, an Anchorage Democrat, said in a statement.

Murkowski asked lawmakers to end the program that pays up to $250 per month to eligible seniors. He argued it was unfair to seniors who don't receive it and the state could not afford it.

But Republican lawmakers, under intense pressure from senior groups supporting the bonus, funded the program in the fiscal 2004 budget and made provisions for a five-year phase out. Murkowski vetoed the funding.

The Legislative Budget and Audit Committee approved a plan on Wednesday to set aside $10 million in one-time federal funds to help needy seniors. But that's far less than would be needed to support the program, which is scheduled to make its last payment to seniors in August.

Democrats face an uphill battle to override a veto - which would take a three-fourths vote of the Legislature - but said they want lawmakers on record.

"No one should hide behind the governor's veto on this one," said Rep. David Guttenberg, a Fairbanks Democrat.

House Speaker Pete Kott, an Eagle River Republican, has said there isn't enough support in the Legislature to override the veto.

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