Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy said Monday he will accept the Alaska Legislature’s plan to resume cash distributions under the Alaska Senior Benefits Payment Program. According to figures provided by the state, 13,522 Alaskans received payments during all or part of the last fiscal year.
“To make a long story short, what we have decided to do is make sure that the funding for senior benefits is in this year’s budget going forward,” Dunleavy said.
The governor made the announcement at the Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center, adding that the program will be funded at the same level it had been before, and payments will be made retroactive to July 1. The announcement does not alter the administration’s plans to significantly increase the cost of staying at the state’s Pioneer Homes.
In June, the governor vetoed all funding for the payments, which go out monthly to Alaskans 65 and older who meet certain income criteria, but Dunleavy now says he will reverse that action. Monday’s announcement is the first in what is expected to be a series this week, as the governor accepts various reversals from his June vetoes.
The governor said he changed his mind about the senior benefits program because of feedback from Alaskans. Public meetings attracted hundreds of Alaskans opposed to the vetoes, and rallies against the vetoes have drawn thousands more. The vetoes are a significant driver in the ongoing effort to recall the governor from office.
“That feedback really resonated, not just with myself, but a lot of our legislators,” he said. “Part of the budget process is you have to listen to Alaskans.”
Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage, said by phone, “I think that people need to know that the public opinion matters, that their letters and their outreach to their elected officials matters."
“It’s a sign that their involvement has made a difference in these 13,000 people that are affected by the senior benefits program,” she said of the governor’s remarks.
Rep. Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, said by phone that “my colleagues in the House Republican caucus have been negotiating with the governor for a while on this particular program,” and the governor’s change was “very much driven by the House Republicans having conversations with him regarding some of the items he was looking at.”
Dunleavy press secretary Matt Shuckerow confirmed that “House minority members played an important role there.”
Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson, D-Anchorage, said by phone that she learned of the governor’s decision shortly after ending a call with a constituent who was in tears about several issues, including the loss of her benefits.
“It’s very, very timely and it’s a great thing, but there’s still issues that need to be addressed,” Gray-Jackson said. “It never should have happened in the first place.”
Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, was in attendance as the governor announced his decision.
“I support the decision to keep senior benefits funded,” she said by text message. “Seniors often live on tight budgets and depend on these modest senior benefits.”
Reinbold is one of the Senate’s fiscal hawks but said, “There are certain aspects of government I strongly support. Supporting seniors, veterans, infrastructure and quality education are some areas I strongly support.”
The governor is expected to reconfirm most of the June vetoes toward the end of the week.
“While we will consider a limited number of additions to the budget, we consider the vast majority of the FY20 budget final. It’s time to move forward,” the governor said in a July 29 statement. He reiterated that remark Monday.
The initial estimate of the June vetoes was $444 million, but according to a July 23 document from the Legislative Finance Division, the governor actually vetoed $420.7 million from the state operating and mental health budgets, and withheld another $30 million in K-12 funding over objections about its constitutionality.
The governor’s vetoes are driven by a desire to balance the state’s budget without cutting the Permanent Fund dividend, spending from savings or raising taxes.
“We’re trying to reduce some of the budget,” the governor said Monday.
In their second special session, Alaska’s legislators approved House Bill 2001, which reverses all but $23.29 million of the governor’s operating budget vetoes.
The course of events has resembled a pingpong match: The Legislature passed a budget, the governor vetoed part of it, lawmakers passed another bill reversing those vetoes, and now the governor is preparing to veto parts of that new bill while accepting others.
“It was funded earlier this year and the governor didn’t understand that this was important to Alaskans,” Spohnholz said.
Among the line items vetoed by the governor in June was $20.8 million in funding for the senior benefits program. The abrupt end of that program created “panic” among Alaskans who rely on the program for basic needs, said Erin Walker-Tolles, executive director of Catholic Community Services in Southeast Alaska.
It was not immediately clear when payments will resume. Adam Crum, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, said the agency is calculating payments now and will have them out soon.
“We’re going to be finalizing our budget here this week but I just want to let you know that the funding for senior benefits is going to be in this year’s budget, and you should start receiving those benefits soon. Sooner than later,” Dunleavy said.