Longtime Kenai Peninsula residents overwhelmingly oppose the elimination of Alaska's longevity bonus program.
Roughly 50 people -- nearly all seniors -- showed up at Kenai City Hall on Friday for an informal meeting called by Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, to discuss Gov. Frank Murkowski's plan to eliminate Alaska's longevity bonus program. Both the public and Wagoner said they are against the plan.
Wagoner told those who attended that he doesn't believe eliminating the program's $47 million in annual payments to Alaska's oldest residents is the right way to solve the state's financial woes.
"I am not in favor of balancing the state's budget on the backs of the seniors," Wagoner said, drawing widespread applause from the crowd.
Wagoner said he called Friday's meeting to find out if the public feels as strongly as he does about the issue. Judging by the comments heard Friday, it does.
"It's high time we let them know we don't want it done," said Glen Jackson of Kenai.
Jackson said he thought it was odd that the governor -- who has spent much of his political life outside Alaska -- tabbed the longevity program for extinction.
"It's ironic that the governor would propose to cut the longevity bonus when he was down in Washington, D.C., and voted to raise his wages each time it came up," he said.
Many said they felt betrayed by the governor because seniors had been led to believe the program would be allowed to gradually phase itself out.
"I can't honestly say it's something we have a right to or we deserve," said Jim Evenson of Kenai. "(But) it's become a part of our lives."
New applicants have not been admitted into the program since 1996. Many who spoke Friday -- including Wagoner -- wondered why the governor wanted to cut a program that won't be around too much longer anyway. He pointed out that the program has dropped the amount the state pays to eligible seniors by $22 million over just the past six years.
"What's the hurry?" he asked, referring to the governor's plan.
Murkowski introduced his plan to cut the longevity bonus as part of a budget aimed at reducing state costs in the face of dwindling budget reserves.
However, many argued Friday that cutting the program could actually hurt the state's finances because many seniors would be forced to turn to the state for medical costs, while spending less money in local economies.
"It almost all gets spent locally," Evenson said.
In the end, Wagoner said Friday's meeting ultimately would have little effect on the debate because he already plans to vote against the provision. However, he told seniors more pressure needs to be put on the governor in order to ensure the measure is taken out of the budget.
"He needs to hear from you," Wagoner said. "You folks need to light a wildfire."
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