Senate OKs energy voucher bill to help with high costs

Program intended to be short-term fix after harsh winter in much of the state.

Associated PressApril 9, 2012 

JUNEAU -- The Alaska Senate on Monday passed a bill that would give every adult recipient of an Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend this fall a voucher to help address high energy costs.

SB203, sponsored by Sen. Joe Thomas, D-Fairbanks, would provide vouchers for 250 gallons of heating oil, 35,000 cubic feet of natural gas, 1,500 kilowatt hours of electricity or 31 million BTUs of hot water or steam district heat.

The program is intended to be a short-term fix, coming after a harsh winter across much of Alaska, and provide the equivalent of up to two months of energy, based on estimates of average statewide residential consumption. The bill also seeks a longer-term fix and calls on the governor to evaluate other alternatives to provide energy assistance.

The estimated cost of the vouchers is $328.3 million to $465 million.

The bill passed 15-4, with Sens. John Coghill, Cathy Giessel, Lesil McGuire and Kevin Meyer voting against it. The bill will next go to the House.

Coghill, R-North Pole, acknowledged that long-term solutions to addressing energy costs and needs are "frustratingly slow" in coming. However, he said he worries the bill sets up an expectation that "this goes on and on and on."

Coghill, the Senate minority leader, said it's painful for him to say that he doesn't believe this is the best solution because people in his district are hurting because of high energy costs.

Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, said the state has the money, thanks to high oil prices, and when someone in your family hurts, you help them.

"I do not say that this is the perfect solution but this is the best solution so far," he said. "If any member has a better idea to assist our Alaskan family, I will look at it and embrace it."

This isn't a long-term solution but seeks to put in a place a program "acknowledging the problem that everyone in this room knows exists," he said.

Gov. Sean Parnell has said he doesn't understand why Alaskans who aren't suffering from high costs should receive the same benefit as those who are. He said he is focused on longer-term solutions and has spoken with legislators about regional solutions.

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