JUNEAU -- Longevity bonuses and assistance to the poor, elderly and foster parents could be reduced under a bill that passed the Senate on Wednesday.
Lawmakers call it a tool to preserve programs in tough fiscal times. Social service officials see it as a way for lawmakers to make cuts to programs serving the neediest Alaskans without the political fallout.
''What it allows the Legislature to do is reduce benefits to individuals simply through budgetary action,'' said Jay Livey, commissioner of the Department of Health and Social Services.
''It doesn't allow for hearings on benefit cuts to individuals,'' Livey said.
Senate Bill 182 requires state administrators to cut monthly benefits for some programs if the Legislature does not provide funding to meet the demand.
It targets the state's Longevity Bonus program, medical assistance, General Relief Assistance, Adult Public Assistance and foster care among other programs.
The bill, sponsored by the Senate Finance Committee, passed the Senate along party lines by a 13-6 vote.
Senate Finance Co-Chairman Dave Donley, R-Anchorage, is the chief architect of the bill. The bill allows the Legislature to respond to revenue cuts and increased demand for programs in a simple manner, Donley said in a sponsor's statement.
Donley did not speak on the bill during debate on Wednesday. It passed with only one objection raised. Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, said the bill ''takes the easy way out'' of budget woes.
Alaska could be at risk of losing foster parents under the measure, Elton said.
Livey said about 11,000 kids are in foster care at any one time in Alaska. He said attracting foster parents has been difficult for the department.
Gov. Tony Knowles proposed increasing the per diem paid to foster parents by $3.02 to $25.36 this year.
Under current law, administrators who oversee affected programs can ask for supplemental spending when they run short of funding. The bill would require administrators to reduce benefits when the funding is short.
Most general relief assistance is paid for indigent burials. But Alaskans can receive up to $120 in temporary assistance under the program.
Alaska Temporary Assistance serves more than 7,500 families. Average payments to families are $630 per month, the department said.
Adult Public Assistance provides monthly benefits to 14,640 low income disabled people too incapacitated to work and the elderly. The maximum amount of benefits is $362 per month.
Under the measure, the Legislature would have to specify within the budget bill that benefits paid by a program should be prorated. But Livey said such direction could be inserted in a budget bill late in the session without a hearing on the proposed cuts.
He intends to oppose the bill when it goes to the House. Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, made a motion to reconsider his vote, which means the measure could come up again on Thursday.
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