Opinions about the senior benefit program approved this week by the state Legislature vary widely among central Kenai Peninsula legislators.
“It’s a regressive system,” said Sen. Tom Wagoner. “If we’re going to do that, we should have gone back to the longevity bonus program.”
As amended by the House of Representatives, persons 65 years old and older will receive $250 a month if their household income does not exceed 75 percent of the federal poverty guidelines for Alaska; $175 a month if income does not exceed 100 percent but is above 75 percent; and $125 a month if income does not exceed 175 percent but is above 100 percent of the poverty level.
The first checks will be paid Aug. 1, if the legislation is signed by Gov. Sarah Palin.
“The governor’s supportive. She’ll sign it,” Wagoner said.
State Rep. Kurt Olson, who represents Kenai, Soldotna and part of Kalifornsky Beach, said, “This makes it truly a needs-based program. Everybody got the longevity bonus.”
A program giving $120 a month to seniors was to expire at the end of the current fiscal year June 30, according to Olson. That program was extended by the governor to the end of July. The new program kicks in immediately after that.
Olson said the program affects fewer than 1,000 seniors on the Kenai Peninsula.
“We pulled the rug out on those people four years ago without notice,” Olson said, referring to the veto of funding for the seniors longevity bonus. “We had some people who were devastated by that.”
Under the newly approved program, Olson said, “We’re spending money where it needs to be spent.”
Rep. Mike Chenault, who represents the central Kenai Peninsula district surrounding Olson’s, said he had been comfortable with an earlier three-tiered version of the benefit program, which would have capped the monthly payments at $175.
He said he is concerned about the $20 million price tag expected to come with the $250 benefit program.
The program, passed during a special session of the Legislature in Anchorage that lasted about seven hours Tuesday, has a four-year sunset, according to Chenault.
“We’ll look back at it in 2011,” Chenault said. “But the problem is, try to take it away.”
He said if a comprehensive study were done of where the money goes under the program, “the large majority of it goes to the more rural areas ... off the road system.”
Wagoner said he would have supported continuing the SeniorCare program that pays $120 a month to seniors.
“I think it got out of control,” Wagoner said. “We went to a three-tier system. We’re right into an entitlements program.
“That’s what happens when you have 60 people make a law in eight hours,” he said.
Because the program is an entitlement rather than a constitutionally mandated benefit, Wagoner fears that when oil prices start coming down and the state faces a fiscal deficit, the senior benefit will be cut from the budget.
“Things that are not mandated education, municipal revenue sharing, senior care are the first things to get cut,” Wagoner said. “We end up looking like the bad guys, again.”
Phil Hermanek can be reached at email@example.com.
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