Senate bill would give all adult Alaskans energy vouchers

'PENNIES': Goal is to fund program from projected $3.7 billion surplus.

Associated PressFebruary 17, 2012 

JUNEAU -- Alaska residents would receive vouchers to help address high energy costs under a bill introduced Friday in the state Senate.

SB203 would provide every adult recipient of an Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend this fall with a voucher for 250 gallons of heating oil, an equivalent amount of natural gas, or 1,500 kilowatt-hours of electricity.

Alaskans who receive a voucher but don't directly pay for heating oil, gas or electricity used in their homes can instead have a voucher sent to their landlord, or they can get $250.

The bill does not yet have a fiscal note detailing the cost. A $3.7 billion surplus has been projected for this year and next, and Sen. Joe Thomas, the bill's primary sponsor, said a goal is to use about 9 cents of every surplus dollar -- "mere pennies" of it -- to provide relief.

"We in this body must take steps this session to help our constituents weather the energy crisis facing our communities," Thomas, D-Fairbanks, said in a floor speech.

Alaska is rich in resources like oil and gas but many residents pay astronomical prices to heat and light their homes and businesses, in large part because of the cost of sending fuel or electricity to outlying communities.

In the Fairbanks area alone, Thomas said, about $660 million is spent each year on energy costs, a figure that comes out to about $6,600 per man, woman and child. Combined electricity and heating bills in the region eat up nearly 30 percent of an average family's income after taxes, he said, in spite of the fact that an oil pipeline and refineries are in the region.

For years, state leaders have been looking for ways to address high energy costs, and Alaska is currently pursuing several projects, like a massive dam, that officials say could help take the edge off, at least in the state's most populous areas. The state has a program to help rural Alaskans with electricity prices but it doesn't address heating oil.

"Every Alaskan faces the high cost of energy. Every member of this body knows family and friends who have faced hard choices because of rising costs," Thomas said. "Let's demonstrate to every Alaskan that we can work together smartly, responsibly and creatively to address this growing problem. Let's show that we can put aside regionalism, partisanship and any other distraction that keeps us from solving the greatest challenge facing far too many Alaska families."

The bill calls to mind a 2008 effort, under then-Gov. Sarah Palin, in which Alaskans received a $1,200 rebate to help offset fuel prices. But it also seeks a longer-term solution and calls on the governor to evaluate other alternatives to provide energy assistance.

At least nine lawmakers, representing a mix of urban and rural areas, have signed onto the bill. Sen. Donny Olson, D-Nome, is among them.

Olson said energy costs are driving people from rural Alaska.

"If people can't afford to live in rural Alaska, they will move to urban areas, assuming they stay in the state," he said.

With the bitter cold this winter in parts of Alaska, he said there is an immediate need for the kind of relief the vouchers can provide while the state works on a long-range plan.

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