Legislature looks at energy checks

House Democrats want more funding for renewable power

Posted: Monday, August 04, 2008

A bill sharing the state's energy wealth with residents moved slowly in legislative negotiations Sunday, and was expected to be taken up by the Senate today.

A Senate plan for $500 checks to Alaskans will compete in the next week with a House of Representatives plan for $1,000. The special session on energy issues ends at midnight Thursday.

Both bodies are also looking at plans to boost spending for the Power Cost Equalization program, which subsidizes electric rates in diesel-powered rural communities, and the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps with heating fuel.

The latest plan under discussion is to spread the assistance to those residents who now heat with natural gas. That's about 115,000 housing units, mostly in Southcentral Alaska, along with a few in Fairbanks and elsewhere.

Adding help for Anchorage residents will broaden the bill's support, said Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, Senate Majority leader.

Both House and Senate plans are for smaller amounts than Gov. Sarah Palin first requested, and cover fewer people. Palin had originally proposed $1,200 payments.

She also had proposed they go to all Alaskans who had been in the state for more than 180 days, but both versions now under consideration mirror Alaska Permanent Fund dividend eligibility, meaning residence for a full calendar year is required.

The House Finance Committee on Sunday met to work out details on how the payments would be provided. That's likely to include a "hold-harmless" clause for veterans.

The Legislature would have the state make up differences in reductions in veterans benefits due to the payments. That could boost the cost to the state, and could encourage some veterans to apply for the payments who do not now apply for their dividends.

The Veterans Administration does count the Permanent Fund dividend as income, and some veterans don't apply for the PFD because of that, said Jon Sherwood, with the Department of Health and Social Services.

Sherwood told the House Finance Committee there would be a cost of a couple of million dollars to provide the extra benefits, as well as hiring a couple of extra temporary staff to handle the paperwork.

House Democrats on Sunday held a morning press conference to talk about their session priorities, which involve long-term energy solutions along with the immediate help.

"Right now we're dealing with issues that are literally, in some communities, life and death," Kerttula said. But it is important to also provide assistance to help communities to develop new energy sources, she said."The future of the state is in long-term, renewable energy," said Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage.

Democrats called the plans offered so far "billion dollar Band-Aids."

Gara, a liberal, on Sunday joined conservative Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, who Friday criticized the Alaska Energy Authority for being too slow in responding to the energy crisis.

Gara said the authority has a billion-dollar backlog of project applications that need to get reviewed and funded.

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