Senior property tax exemption survives session

Legislative update

The Alaska legislature is no longer pushing to remove the mandate for the Senior and Disabled Property Tax Exemption, which exempts Alaskan seniors and disabled veterans from having to pay property taxes on the first $150,000 of the assessed value of their home.

Although many municipalities protest the program as an expensive, unfunded mandate and have lobbied for its removal, the proposal floated during this session to make it optional, rather than mandatory as it is now, received too much pushback and has been abandoned for now, according to senior advocates in Juneau.

The exemption was created to help protect seniors on fixed incomes from rising property values and taxes, which could force them to have to sell their homes. But the exemption does result in lost revenues for municipalities. The Alaska Municipal League listed repeal of the exemption mandate, or full state funding to pay for it, among its top legislative priorities for 2016. In earlier years, the state would reimburse municipalities for the revenues lost from the exemption, however that funding dwindled and stopped years ago.

Senate Bill 210, introduced by the Senate Finance committee, initially included language to remove the requirement that cities provide the exemption. Cities or boroughs could continue to offer it – some boroughs such as the Mat-Su and Kenai Peninsula Boroughs offer exemptions larger than the mandated amount – but some municipalities feel the current program is too costly.

But legislators backed away from the proposal and at Senior Voice press time, the bill had been passed to the governor without the language to eliminate the mandatory exemption.

Senior Benefits program

Through budget cuts, the legislature effectively removed 5,400 Alaskans from the Senior Benefits program, which provides monthly cash assistance to lower-income seniors age 65 and older. The program’s recipients fall into three categories, or “tiers,” based on income. The lowest and second-lowest income seniors will continue receiving monthly payments of $250 or $175, depending on income. However, senior individuals with an annual income higher than $14,480 will stop receiving payments under the budget the legislature has given to the governor.

This group had already seen a significant cut in their monthly payment when the legislature moved last year to reduce the benefit from $125 to $47. Under the new plan, the payment would go away altogether, saving the state about $5 million.

Seniors with an annual income of up to $14,480 for an individual, or $20,020 for married couples, will still receive the benefit.

Another legislative action closed a loophole that was allowing non-U.S. citizens to collect Senior Benefits payments. SB 147 specifies that only U.S. citizens can be eligible, and will save the state about $47,000 in payments that were going to undocumented immigrants.

Medicaid Adult Dental

Another budget cut that will hit low income seniors hard is a $6 million funding cut for Medicaid Adult Dental benefits, resulting in a reduction in dental care to 1,753 vulnerable adults. The Medicaid dental program last year served 4,026 seniors age 60 and older, at an average annual cost of $3,452.

“We all know that dental is so important to your overall health that this is going to be a really difficult program to see cut,” Alaska Commission on Aging Executive Director Denise Daniello said during an April 21 commission legislative teleconference. She noted that Medicare doesn’t cover the cost of most dental services so this Medicaid option was filling a vital need.

Pioneer Homes

Another budget cut going to the governor for signature is a $1.5 reduction for the Pioneer Homes, which will mean the loss of approximately 11 full time employees. This will result in a reduction of beds and a longer waitlist, Pioneer Home staff have said.

Another provision, that seemed to fly under the radar, imposes a $100 fee to be placed on the Pioneer Homes’ wait list, which currently numbers over 53,000 Alaskans. This would be an annual fee, noted Marie Darlin, from AARP’s Capitol City Task Force in Juneau, during the April 21 teleconference.

“Someone on the wait list for 20 years could pay $2,000, and end up dying,” she noted.

The Alaska Commission on Aging sent a letter to legislators opposing the fee as proposed, and suggested alternatives. The letter appears on page 2 of this edition.

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