JUNEAU (AP) Dozens of older Alaskans sounded off Thursday on a proposal to end the state longevity bonus program, saying they need the money for everything from prescription drugs to water bills.
It was the first chance seniors have had to testify on Gov. Frank Murkowski's bill that would cut $47.5 million from the budget by ending the monthly payments many older Alaskans receive.
Rosalee Walker of the Juneau AARP chapter told the Senate State Affairs Committee that older Alaskans were initially pleased when they heard Murkowski was going to cut government waste.
It came as a great surprise to us that we had been targeted as budgetary waste,'' Walker said.
Seniors feel betrayed because they believed a previous Legislature had committed to maintaining the program for those currently receiving benefits, as part of a phase-out bill in 1994, Walker said.
Murkowski administration officials say the program no longer serves its original purpose, which was to reward seniors who had been living in Alaska before 1959 and had helped build the state.
A court ruled in the 1980s that the residency requirement was unconstitutional, so the program was opened to all Alaskans.
In 1994 the Legislature passed a law phasing out the program. Now only those who were at least 65 and living in the state in 1996 continue receiving checks, and the youngest of those receive just $100.
Deputy Commissioner of Administration Ray Matiashowski said the program treats seniors unequally, because while 18,000 receive the bonuses, another 20,000 do not.
Health and Social Services Commissioner Joel Gilbertson said the state continues to fund a range of programs for needy older Alaskans, including public assistance, food stamps and nursing home care.
But senior citizens testifying Thursday didn't accept those arguments.
About 60 people from Ketchikan to Nome testified during a two and a half hour hearing, and all opposed the measure.
Many seniors, or in some cases their family members, testified they had planned their retirement based on the monthly income, and to remove it would impose a hardship and could force some to leave Alaska.
Gary Longley Sr. of Nome said at 70 he does not receive the bonus, but his 92-year-old mother does and she might not be able to afford her nursing home care without it.
The state should not pull the help away from Alaskans in their 70s, 80s and 90s, he said.
It's too late for them to adjust to a major economic change,'' Longley said.
Some testified they did not want to have to apply for welfare, while others said seniors who have trouble paying bills would not all qualify for state welfare programs.
To be eligible for adult public assistance, an individual senior citizen must have income of less than $12,300 a year and can't have more than $2,000 in savings. Those on public assistance are also eligible for other programs, including Medicaid, which pays for prescription drugs.
Seniors with medical needs significant enough to qualify for nursing home care can receive Medicaid even if their income is close to $20,000 a year.
Some of those testifying Thursday said legislators should find others places to cut government, while others suggested the state impose an income tax. One man suggested $200 be deducted from all Alaskans' permanent fund dividend checks rather than cut the program.
After the meeting, State Affairs Committee Chairman Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said he doubts the bill will pass the Senate as it is currently written.
You can't help but be moved by all the stories that we've heard and the people who are facing such drastic problems in their lives,'' Stevens said.
Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, said he might support applying a means-test to the bonus program, with only those below a certain income qualifying. He did not know what that income level might be.
Stevens said the committee will continue to take testimony on the measure, Senate Bill 117, next week.
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