Longevity bonus cut likely to face stiff opposition

Posted: Wednesday, March 12, 2003

JUNEAU (AP) A proposal to save $47.5 million a year by ending the senior citizens' longevity bonus program is likely to face stiff opposition.

About 70 people showed up at legislative offices around the state Tuesday, hoping to testify at the bill's first hearing. Some majority Republicans have already expressed reluctance to support the measure, and senior advocates plan to fight it.

This is something that many Alaska seniors really depend upon and need,'' said Marie Darlin, a Juneau representative for AARP. It's particularly important since Alaska provides no help to seniors for paying prescription drug bills as some states do, she said.

Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski introduced the bill last week as part of a budget proposal aimed at narrowing the gap between state revenue and spending.

Department of Administration Commissioner Mike Miller said Tuesday the current longevity bonus program bears no resemblance to what the Legislature intended when the program started in the 1970s.

Miller told the House State Affairs Committee the money is better spent on other programs such as pioneers homes, assisted living homes and meals-on-wheels, Miller said.

I would personally like to help those seniors that are most in need versus all seniors,'' Miller said.

The committee, which had other legislation on its agenda Tuesday, ran out of time before anyone other than Miller could speak on the measure. Chairman Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau, urged the approximately 70 people who wanted to testify to return for special hearings on the bill March 25-26.

Many Democrats, who are in the minority in the Legislature, have blasted the proposal. Some majority Republicans say they'll have trouble voting for it, too.

Freshman Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, said he promised during his campaign that he would not cut longevity bonuses, so he won't support the proposal.

House Speaker Pete Kott, R-Eagle River, said when the Legislature adopted a plan to phase out the program gradually in 1994, he told senior groups then he would not tamper with it again.

Personally, I'm going to have a very difficult time dealing with that issue,'' Kott said.

Senate President Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, said when he first ran for office, he told voters the program was not affordable in the long-term, so he has freedom some other lawmakers don't to propose changes.

But he said he does not believe ending the program at the end of this fiscal year is salable.''

Murkowski spokesman John Manly said he is surprised at the opposition among Republicans since none insisted the proposal be removed when GOP lawmakers were given a private briefing before the budget was rolled out.

The longevity program started in the 1970s as a way to reward older Alaskans who had helped build the state, Miller said. It was limited to those living in Alaska before 1959.

In the 1980s the Alaska Supreme Court struck down the residency requirement, so the Legislature opened the program to all senior citizens.

We were awash in oil dollars at the time,'' said Miller, who was in the Legislature then. In retrospect, we made a mistake.''

Costs ballooned to $67 million and were projected to rise to more than $100 million when the Legislature decided in 1994 to begin phasing out the program to rein in the costs, Miller said.

He said he believes that was a mistake too, because it created two classes of senior citizens, those who receive the bonus and those who don't.

The phase-out plan called for those new to the program to receive smaller monthly bonuses, with the program being closed entirely to new applicants at the end of 1996.

Miller said 18,000 of the 38,000 Alaskans over age 65 now receive the bonuses.

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