Veterans bill died at the hands of partisan politics

Posted: Friday, June 28, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- Gov. Tony Knowles took Republican lawmakers to task for concluding a four-day special session without taking up a key veterans bill he had sought.

''It became a very partisan issue and they were making it such,'' the Democrat governor said Thursday.

The Republican-controlled Legislature was called back to Juneau for a special session to consider two Knowles' bills that were unresolved during the regular session.

Knowles had sought a four-year extension for the state agency that regulates utilities.

The governor was also seeking $2.6 million to fill vacant beds in the Alaska Pioneers' Homes as part of a series of veterans initiatives he introduced this year.

The assisted living center has a waiting list of more than 180 elderly Alaskans and 100 empty beds left vacant due to funding shortfalls.

Knowles is seeking federal approval to give an admissions preference to elderly veterans into the Alaska Pioneers' Homes and capture federal per diem from the Veterans Administration.

His plan would have admitted 20 elderly veterans into the homes along with 80 senior citizens.

Knowles enlisted the help of veterans organizations who support the bill to lobby lawmakers during the special session.

But the Legislature adjourned without giving the bill a single hearing, and veterans say the partisan rancor between Knowles and Republican lawmakers was too great to make progress on the issue

''It was a Democrat and Republican issue. If it was a Republican that had put the bill in, I believe it would have passed,'' said Lorenzo Jordan, president of the Disabled American Veterans of Alaska.

Jordan said several Republicans were unwilling to approve the measure as long as Knowles was in office. Knowles leaves office in December and cannot seek a third consecutive term.

Knowles had threatened to call lawmakers into a third special session this year if no action was taken on the bill, but veterans groups ultimately gave up.

''If we would have caused a special session, all they would have done was open it and close it and it would have wasted a lot of money,'' Jordan said.

The special session cost $25,000 a day in addition to the $50,000 cost of travel for the 60 lawmakers and their staff, according to the Legislative Affairs Agency.

Republicans have said they favor a plan proposed by U.S. Sen Frank Murkowski, who is seeking the GOP nomination for governor in 2002, that would capture federal funds for veterans.

Murkowski is seeking $16 million to construct separate veterans wing onto existing state facilities. Alaska and Hawaii are the only two states that don't have veterans homes.

Late Wednesday, Senate Republicans rejected Democrat efforts to move Knowles veterans bill out of a committee by a 14-6 vote. Had the bill passed, House GOP leaders had already vowed to take no action on it.

The Senate had previously approved more than $1 million for Knowles' veterans bill, but the funds were eliminated during budget negotiations.

Earlier this year, lawmakers approved a pilot program that would allow the state to pursue federal funds for more than 90 elderly veterans already staying in Alaska Pioneers' Homes. Lawmakers also approved $250,000 to study the needs of veterans who do not meet eligibility requirements for the state facilities.

Republicans accused Knowles of using the support of veterans organizations -- groups that typically hold great sway with GOP politicians -- in an effort to get more funding for the cash-strapped state facilities.

''This does nothing for the veterans. It's a pure appropriation to the Pioneers' Homes,'' said Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks.

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