Senate budget may avoid controversial cuts

Posted: Wednesday, April 23, 2003

JUNEAU (AP) -- Senate Republicans may preserve the longevity bonus for seniors in next year's operating budget, GOP leaders say.

But a compromise may add eligibility requirements to exclude seniors who don't rely on the bonuses.

''We're looking at trying to craft something that gets the votes, number one, and looks out for the seniors of very modest means,'' said Senate President Gene Therriault, R-North Pole.

Alaska's longevity bonus has been a major issue as lawmakers have tried to put together a budget for the next fiscal year.

Republicans, who control both the House and Senate, are considering a proposal by GOP Gov. Frank Murkowski to end the bonuses, saving $47.5 million.

Earlier this session, the House approved a fiscal 2004 operating budget that preserved the longevity bonus. That came after seniors reacted angrily to Murkowski's plan.

The Senate Finance Committee also heard from seniors during two days of budget testimony last week.

Senate Finance Co-chairman Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks, said the program is likely to survive in some form.

''I don't think there's the votes to keep it intact, and I don't think there's the votes to throw it out,'' Wilken said. ''We're trying to find some middle ground.''

The longevity bonus program at one point provided all Alaskans over age 65 with a $250 monthly stipend.

In the early 1990s the Legislature passed a law phasing out the program, so that only Alaskans who were at least 65 and living in the state in 1996 continue receiving checks. About 20,000 elderly Alaskans still receive the bonus, with younger seniors receiving lesser amounts.

Murkowski argued the program was not fair, since those who turned 65 or moved to Alaska after 1996 aren't included. He proposed ending it to cut state spending and lessen the drain on Alaska's $1.9 billion Constitutional Budget Reserve.

Wilken said much of the public testimony on the budget centered around a few areas, including the longevity bonus. Alaskans also complained about funding for K-12 schools, the University of Alaska and support for independent living programs.

The Senate Finance Committee is expected to take up amendments to the budget on Thursday. Those amendments typically constitute the final pieces of a budget package that then goes to the floor.

Wilken predicted the amendments would focus on budget areas that saw the most public outcry. He did not say specifically what changes might emerge, but said he supported keeping Alyeska Central School open for at least another year.

Wilken also said there will likely be amendments on the budget figures for both primary and secondary schools and the University of Alaska.

Murkowski had proposed nearly $28 million in cuts to K-12 education spending, along with a $10.3 million increase for the University of Alaska.

The House lessened the cuts to Alaska's primary and secondary schools, but eliminated the increase for the university. House and Senate budget leaders are expected to look at both very carefully as they try to hammer out a compromise the governor will accept.



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