House turns down longevity bonus phase-out bill

Posted: Wednesday, May 21, 2003

JUNEAU (AP) The state House on Tuesday voted down a plan to phase out the senior citizens' longevity bonus program. But the issue could come up for another vote Wednesday.

In a 13-25 vote, representatives refused to go along with a five-year phase-out of the program that sends monthly checks to eligible older Alaskans.

''There already is a phase-out program of the longevity bonus, and it's called death,'' said Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage. ''And not so facetiously, we are dying as fast as we can.''

Lynn, 70, does not receive a bonus. He had promised during his campaign to protect the program.

Rep. Cheryll Heinze, R-Anchorage, said she could not take the payments away from Alaskans who had crafted retirement budgets around them and are too old to go back to work.

''Are we going to look them in the eye and say, 'OK, you've gotta go, even though you're going to lose your home?''' Heinze said.

Senior citizen groups had proposed the phase-out as an alternative to Gov. Frank Murkowski's plan to save about $44 million dollars by ending the program altogether this year.

The program provides monthly payments, which range up to $250 depending on when people turned 65. Several years ago, the state began phasing out the payments, but grandfathered in seniors living in Alaska who turned 65 by the end of 1996. They receive the bonuses regardless of income.

Senate President Gene Therriault's office has proposed saving money by allowing the bonuses only for those with limited incomes, but senior groups rejected that idea.

They said many seniors perceived it as welfare, and the income limits were too low.

Rep. Norm Rokeberg, R-Anchorage, urged his colleagues to go along with the phase-out as senior groups had asked.

Chip Wagoner, a lobbyist for the Pioneers of Alaska, said seniors would have a stronger negotiating position if the bill passed. He believes it would be easier to muster a three-quarters vote of the Legislature to override a veto of funding for the program if the phase-out is in place.

Murkowski has threatened to line-item veto all funding for the bonuses in the 2004 fiscal year since lawmakers have not passed a proposed sales tax to pay for that and other programs.

Administration officials had also said earlier they did not support a five-year phase-out, although they would have accepted a two-year phase-out but that was only if the Legislature also passed the sales tax.

The senior group AARP had endorsed the five-year phase-out as an attempted compromise, but a volunteer lobbyist for the group, Marie Darlin, did not object to the House's rejection of that plan.

''We know it was a tough vote for them,'' Darlin said.

Rep. Sharon Cissna, D-Anchorage, said she believes the Legislature could muster the votes to override a Murkowski veto.

''I think it has to stay,'' Cissna said. ''I think politically in this state you're dead meat if you don't keep this program.''

Rep. Bill Williams, R-Saxman, gave notice he may bring the bill up for reconsideration Wednesday, so the outcome could still change.

Those voting for the five-year phase-out were Reps. John Coghill, R-North Pole; Hugh ''Bud'' Fate, R-Fairbanks; Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage; Jim Holm, R-Fairbanks; Vic Kohring, R-Wasilla; Rokeberg; Ralph Samuels, R-Anchorage; Paul Seaton, R-Homer; Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau; Jim Whitaker, R-Fairbanks; Williams; Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell; and Kelly Wolf, R-Kenai.

Reps. Reggie Joule, D-Kotzebue, and Mary Kapsner, D-Bethel, were absent.

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