NEEDY SENIORS SLEEP BETTER TONIGHT
For the first time, the Alaska legislature met outside of Juneau (in Anchorage), and we held the shortest special session ever. That's an historical event. More importantly, Senate Bill 4 (the Senior Assistance Program) passed the legislature with a vote of 34-3 in the House, and 14-3 in the Senate. I voted “Yes.” Was there ever any doubt? Without today’s action, the program would have expired.
Today’s passage of the Senior Assistance bill has a convoluted history. Governor Murkowski eliminated funding for the promised-based Longevity Bonus (the beginning of his troubles). The Bonus would have terminated when the last recipient terminated. In its place, Murkowski – with the legislature’s help – substituted the “needs based” Senior Care Program. Actually, the Longevity Bonus remains in statute - there have just never been enough votes to fund it again.
Murkowski’s Senior Care Program was set to expire on June 30th, 2007 - just a few days from now. During the last days of the 2007 regular legislative session, two bills were sponsored to extend the Senior Care Program: SB4 by a Senate Democrat, and HB198 by a House Republican. SB4 was held in the House Finance Committee, and never came to the House floor for a vote. However, HB198 was permitted to come to the House floor for a vote – but it contained “poison pill language” to eliminate the unfunded Longevity Bonus from statute.
I sponsored an amendment to remove the poison pill. This was gratuitous language that had whatever to do with Senior Assistance. The Longevity issue was another debate for a different day. My amendment passed on a bipartisan vote of 23-20. (See my Blog for April 10, 2007) Unfortunately, when my amendment passed, the sponsor of HB198 was party to taking the bill off the floor by returning it to the limbo of the House Rules Committee – essentially “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” I have yet to understand the rationale for that, since the Bonus and the Assistance program are separate issues, and if a senior qualified for one they needn’t qualify for the other.
Some supporters of HB198 attempted to “roll the chair” of the Rules Committee to bring the bill for a vote, but the effort failed on procedural grounds. Likewise, attempts to force SB4 out of committee and to the floor from the finance committee failed on procedural grounds. Ergo, no Senior Assistance bill passed during the regular session, and it appeared the program would die June 30th.
The legislature came home to a firestorm for failing to act (though everyone doesn’t admit it). Apparently, the governor also wasn’t happy. As the saying goes, “when folks feel the heat they see the light”! So today, the legislature came into special session for “essential repairs.”
The Democrat SB4 bill was the chosen vehicle for restoring the senior assistance program – a bill with lower senior benefits than the Republican HB198. However, the sponsor of HB198 sponsored an Amendment today to raise the benefits of SB4 up to about what HB198 had been – the same bill he helped send back to the Rules Committee in April. I co-sponsored his amendment – along with several other legislators – but the sponsor of the Amendment had our names removed without asking (probably another history making event). The amendment passed on a vote of 22-15. I voted “Yes” - same as I would have voted in April. If anyone can explain (or even understand) these Byzantine machinations they get a gold star!
Bottom Line: needy seniors can sleep a little better tonight.