JUNEAU — An Alaska Senate leader apologized at a Thursday news conference for a budget cut targeting the state-run Pioneer Homes for elderly residents, which had prompted fears at least one of the homes could be closed.
Soldotna Republican Sen. Peter Micciche, the GOP majority leader, blamed a Senate aide for assigning the Pioneer Homes a $5.7 million reduction, or nearly 20 percent, when the cut was intended to be distributed across the entire state health department.
"In the final creation of the budget, a staffer looked for a line for an unallocated cut. We admittedly should have put a little more thought into that line," Micciche said. "Seniors in our Pioneer Homes will be protected. And I apologize that politics ever got in."
The Senate's proposed reduction prompted a political furor late last week, after the Pioneer Homes' director emailed residents and workers at the Palmer home to warn that the cuts could force a closure by the end of the summer. The uproar demonstrated the special place that seniors hold in Alaska politics.
The Senate budget still must be reconciled with a House proposal that leaves Pioneer Homes spending intact.
The Senate Finance Committee had inserted special language into their budget allowing Gov. Bill Walker's administration to spread the reduction across the whole health department. But administration officials said it would refuse, asserting that it's the Legislature's job to direct state spending and specify places for cuts. They also said they had to start contingency planning in case the Senate's version of the budget was adopted.
Since Monday, each of the four caucuses in the House and Senate has weighed in on the potential closure, with Republicans blaming Walker and Democrats blaming the Senate majority. On Thursday, the Senate took the rare step of approving a "sense of the Senate," a formal statement of their position, on the Pioneer Homes.
"It is the sense of the Senate that our cherished seniors and honorable veterans be rest assured that all Pioneer Homes will remain open and fully operational" in next year's budget, the statement read. "The Senate feels that Pioneer Home residents have earned secure, quality housing and deserve to have the respect and deference of the Senate clearly communicated."