Handful of new laws to take effect in Alaska

Posted: Friday, December 31, 2010

JUNEAU - Starting in the new year, foster youth will have the option of state support for an extra year, limits will be placed on forced overtime for nurses and heirs of residents who die after June 29 will be able to make claims on their Alaska Permanent Fund dividends.

The measures are among a handful of laws taking effect Jan. 1.

In Alaska, depending on the timing of the governor's signature or the language included in a bill, it's not unusual for measures to take effect at seemingly odd times - the middle of summer, for example - and not always, say, at the start of a new calendar or fiscal year.

Currently, foster youth can remain in state care until age 20 but that's not always enough time for them to be ready to be on their own, said Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage. Some may still be working on getting their high school diploma or trying to get a job or into college and can't afford or aren't ready to get a place of their own, he said.

"When most kids leave their house, if they get into trouble, can't afford rent, if they lose their job or need advice, they have an adult they can call," said Gara, a former foster child. "If you leave foster care and can't make rent or tuition or need a helping hand, you often don't have any adult to call."

The extension was among the measures passed during the 2010 legislative session aimed at improving a system marred by what Gara calls a lack of foster parents and a need to do better in preparing foster youth for adulthood.

Gara said states that extend care to age 21 tend to have greater success than those that don't.

Also Jan. 1, there will be limits on forced overtime for nurses. The law takes effect without the signature of Gov. Sean Parnell, who said labor issues usually are addressed through collective bargaining, which he supports. But he noted testimony during the legislative session indicating "the safety of Alaskans is at greater risk without the legislation."

The law doesn't ban overtime; rather, it limits mandatory overtime, hours above an agreed upon or scheduled shift.

Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, a lead sponsor of the bill, called mandatory overtime a main reason nurses leave the profession. She said it often comes with the threat of reprisals, including demotions or firing.

Also in her sponsor statement, she said the intent of the legislation is to "promote better patient and nurse safety and to create an environment that will keep nurses at the bedside."

As for the dividend issue, there had been provisions allowing for an heir or executor of the estate to claim the payments. But for a claim to be made, the person must have lived the entire qualifying year, said Debbie Bitney, the Permanent Fund Division director. If that person died during the qualifying year, the estate would not be eligible to seek the dividend, she said.

Under the new law, an heir or estate to a person who otherwise would have been eligible for a divided and lived in the state at least 180 days immediately prior to death will be able to make a claim.

Bitney anticipates the state will pay the estates of about half the residents who die in a given year. That would be about 1,700 to 1,800 more payments, judging from vital statistics records. In 2009, about 3,600 Alaskans died.

Alaska Permanent Fund dividends are eagerly anticipated by residents and welcomed by retailers for the cash they infuse into the economy. The checks paid to nearly all Alaskans come from investment profits averaged from an oil-wealth savings account. The 2010 dividend was $1,281.

Though the law takes effect Jan. 1, heirs of those who live until at least June 29 - the 180th day of 2011 - will not be able to apply for dividends applicable under the law until 2012, Bitney said. The state Department of Law decided the provision must be on the books for the entire qualifying year before claims can be made, she said.

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