JUNEAU (AP) -- Alaskans receiving a longevity bonus will have more flexibility to travel and still receive checks under a bill passed 36-0 Thursday by the state House.
House Bill 162 allows Alaskan receiving the bonus to be absent from the state for 60 consecutive days without an interruption in checks.
The bill was sponsored by the Health, Education and Social Services Committee at the request of Rep. Gretchen Guess, D-Anchorage.
Longevity bonuses are monthly checks of up to $250 the state pays to senior citizens.
The program began as a way to reward pioneer Alaskans and encourage them to remain in the state at retirement. However, after a court challenge, the program was opened up to any senior Alaskan who had lived in the state for at least one year.
Legislators in 1993 voted to phase out eligibility. No new recipients have been added since 1996. About 20,000 Alaskans 65 or older currently receive checks, according to the Department of Administration, down from 22,000 last year.
Guess said the checks are important to low income senior citizens, many of whom want to travel out of state by car or recreational vehicle. Completing a road trip Outside within 30 days is difficult, Guess said.
''This was a way to give those seniors more flexibility without penalizing them,'' Guess said.
Under current law, state officials must be notified if recipients are absent from the state longer than 30 days. Recipients gone for longer than 30 days lose checks for every month they're gone.
If they're gone longer than 90 consecutive days, under current law, they are disqualified from bonuses for 12 months.
Guess said that was a hardship for seniors who leave Alaska to care for relatives out of state. Some seniors were leaving for up to 90 days, then flying back for 10 days to avoid losing their eligibility for a year.
HB 162 allows recipients to leave for up to five years without a yearlong interruption in checks once they return.
Recipients absent for more than five years are permanently disqualified form receiving longevity bonuses.
The Department of Administration estimates the bill could save the state nearly $150,000 next year. The state would save money by not having to pay a monthly check to seniors who fly back to Alaska merely to preserve their future eligibility.
The bill now moves to the Senate for consideration.
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