Governor moves to end Senior Benefits program

Gov. Mike Dunleavy has introduced legislation to end the Senior Benefits program, the income-based program that provides monthly cash assistance to low-income Alaska seniors. Identical bills, House Bill 60 and companion Senate Bill 58, were introduced at the governor's request in February. If passed, the legislation would end the benefits program, effective June 30, 2019.

The Senior Benefits program provides monthly payments to seniors age 65 and older at three different levels, depending on applicants' income level:

$250 for the lowest-income level, individuals earning no more than $11,385 annually or $15,435 for married couples:

$175 for individuals earning no more than $15,180 or $20,580 couples

$76 for individuals earning no more than $26,565 or $36,015 for couples

The income levels are based on federal poverty guidelines and assets such as savings accounts, retirement accounts, homes, boats, vehicles are not included in assessing income. More than 11,000 seniors currently receive the payments, and the state would save approximately $20 million by eliminating the program, according to an Office of Budget Management summary.

Outcry to the governor's bills was immediate, with many senior advocacy organizations noting that the monthly payments go to the poorest of Alaska's poor seniors. The House bill has been referred to three different committees, often an indicator the bill won't get passed. As of Feb. 24, it was awaiting a hearing in the Community and Regional Affairs Committee. The Senate version has been referred to two committees, and was in the Health and Social Services committee awaiting action.

The Senior Benefits Program is the heir to the older Longevity Bonus program, which provided more generous payments to Alaska seniors regardless of their income. It was ended under former Gov. Frank Murkowski. The Senior Benefits program evolved in its place as a safety net for the lowest-income seniors.

Last session, the legislature showed strong support for the program, voting almost unanimously to extend it for another six years, to 2024. Gov. Bill Walker signed the bill in June.