Governor’s bill to cut Senior Benefits Program held in House committee

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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) — The co-chair of the House Community and Regional Affairs Committee held up legislation Thursday that would eliminate the Senior Benefits Program.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy proposed HB 60 which seeks to eliminate the benefits program as part of his FY2020 budget, which would save the state an estimated $19.9 million annually.

The program gives a means-tested figure to low-income senior Alaskans, with benefit payments ranging from $76 per month for the highest income recipients, and up to $250 per month for the lowest income recipients.

Across the state, 11,599 senior Alaskans receive the benefit, including 1,742 who receive the highest figure.

On Thursday morning, Shawnda O’Brien, the director of the Division of Public Assistance, testified to the committee about the program and why the administration is proposing to eliminate it.

“The administration is in a tough position of trying to find general fund spending that can be eliminated without regulation or other things,” she said.

O’Brien said that if the proposal to eliminate the program passes, low-income seniors may be eligible to receive more benefits from food stamps and other benefits programs.

“I find it kind of hard to go after our most vulnerable population, the elderly,” said Rep. Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks. “You look at the amount of income they have, it’s super low to get to the $250 a month.”

33 callers from across Alaska testified on the proposal to eliminate the program, many saying the benefit was vital for the livelihood of low-income seniors.

The Senior Benefits Program was scheduled to sunset in 2018, but the Legislature voted to extend the program for six years. Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, was the only lawmaker to vote against the legislation in either the House or the Senate.

Co-chair of the House Committee on Community and Regional Affairs, Rep. Harriet Drummond, D-Anchorage, held the governor’s proposed legislation for further committee review.

The House Finance Committee’s current version of the operating budget contains funding for the program.