As lawmakers work to “right-size” government in Juneau with cuts to state agencies, House Republicans say that means cutting senior benefits to 5,348 Alaskans. The House Finance Committee proposed eliminating benefits to seniors with the highest payment level in the program. These are people that make less than $26,000 a year — the state currently provides them a $125 monthly payment.

“The difficult truth is that cash payments to senior citizens is not really an essential function of government,” said Rep. Dan Saddler, a Republican and co-chair of the House Finance Committee.

Saddler and other Republican members of the House said Friday that this is what “right-sizing” government looks like.

“One thing that we continue to hear from the public is before they want any new revenues, they want to see further reductions,” said Republican Rep. Mark Neuman, co-chair of the House Finance Committee. “I don’t think I’ve read an article or an email that does not say that.”

But Democrats shot back on social media, with tweets that legislative per diems aren’t an essential form of government either.

“I don’t think that we deserve per diem as long as we’re cutting all of these essential services for our seniors,” said Rep. Scott Kawasaki, a Democrat.

When asked whether he’d be willing to give up his own per diem, Kawasaki said it’s just one option.

“I think that’s part of the discussion right now and I think the Legislature has to come to grips with what our budgets are here before people will trust us when it comes to the other budgets in state government,” he said.

Saddler called the Democrats’ bringing up per diems a way to provoke people on a sensitive subject and said it’s not a fair comparison.

“We do travel away from our home. We are living on the economy down here. It’s not a payment because we don’t have income, it’s to compensate for living expenses,” said Saddler.

Lawmakers use per diems for food and housing, much like seniors use their benefits. House majority members say there are still two other categories of seniors that will receive benefits — 8,011 lower income Alaskans.

In trimming fat from government, Republicans say they’ve tried not to cut so deep they hit bone. But Democrats say, they just did.

“I just want to put this in the context of people. The person that works at Sam’s club that checks your ID on the way in, her and her husband are the portion that we intend to cut out,” Rep. Kawasaki told colleagues in committee Friday.

As part of cuts to the Department of Health and Social Services, the House proposed an 8 percent reduction to Behavioral Health and Recovery grants, which include funding for substance abuse programs like rehabilitation for heroin users.

At a separate committee hearing Friday, the Office of Children’s Services told members of the Senate Health and Social Services Committee that it’s seen a 50 percent increase in the number of children in the foster care system in the last four years.

Christy Lawton, director of the department, says she attributes most of the spike in numbers to an increase in heroin addiction statewide.

“The state has a heroin crisis, but it also has a fiscal crisis,” said Saddler.