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Senate committee considering energy voucher program

Becky BohrerAssociated Press

JUNEAU -- A man living in Nunapitchuk was so sick of people stealing his heating oil, he put a bear trap next to his tank. The Hooper Bay city administrator says people have sawed off wood from unused, vacant public buildings to heat their homes. In Kotlik, a tribal council worker says nearly all community households are seeking low-income energy or emergency assistance.

The president of the Association of Village Council Presidents Regional Housing Authority shared the stories about the toll high energy costs are taking on Alaskans. In a letter to lawmakers, Ron Hoffman also expresses support for a proposal for the state to help offset some costs.

The Senate Finance Committee is considering a revamped proposal for energy vouchers that would give every adult recipient of an Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend this fall a voucher for 250 gallons of heating oil, 35,000 cubic feet of natural gas or 1,500 kilowatt hours of electricity. SB203, as it stands, would provide a $250 cash option for Alaskans who either do not buy oil, gas or electricity for their homes or have access to a qualified distributor to help them pay for alternative energy or rent. Renters with heat and electricity included in their rent can ask that their voucher be reissued to their landlord in exchange for a rent reduction.

SB203, sponsored by Sen. Joe Thomas, D-Fairbanks, is intended to provide 1 1/2 to 2 months of energy based on estimates of average statewide residential consumption. It's not clear yet how much the program might cost, though Thomas, in introducing the original bill, said the intent was to use about 9 cents of every surplus dollar, which, considering surplus estimates of $3.7 billion, would have been around $333 million.

A companion bill also has been proposed on the House side by Rep. Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks.

In 2008, under then-Gov. Sarah Palin, Alaskans received a $1,200 rebate to help offset fuel prices. There was criticism that people did not use the money for fuel costs because there was no requirement to do so. Thomas said the overall cost of that program was $800 million.

Gov. Sean Parnell, who has met with rural and Interior lawmakers on energy concerns this session, has said he doesn't understand why Alaskans who aren't suffering from high costs should receive the same benefit as those who are.

That point was raised Tuesday during the House Special Committee on Energy, which was hearing Thompson's bill. It's a matter of fairness, Thompson said, while noting that 250 gallons of heating oil could cost more than $1,000 in a place like Fairbanks but perhaps $600 to $700 in another community.

Hoffman, in his letter, made suggestions such as giving vouchers to heads of households -- which Thomas' office said would be tough to determine -- and including wood vouchers as an option.

The voucher program is intended to be a short-term fix, coming after an especially harsh and cold winter across much of the state. The proposals also seek a longer-term fix and call on the governor to evaluate other alternatives to provide energy assistance.

For years, state leaders have been looking for ways to address high energy costs. Alaska is currently pursuing several projects, like a large dam and gas pipeline proposals, which 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.

Hooper Bay City Administrator Bosco Olson Sr. said Tuesday he just hopes relief comes soon. "It would be really important," he said. "It would be a big help."

He said no firewood has drifted ashore for three or four years. The community is "really desperate right now" for wood, and any scrap is like gold.

The Associated Press