A House panel rejected Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s plan to repeal the state’s senior benefits program, which would take more than 11,000 people off its rolls.

The governor's plan, expected to save more than $20 million this year and $25 million in ensuing years, comes a year after the Legislature gave the program a six-year extension. It is part of Dunleavy’s broader plan to close a $1.6 billion budget gap.

After a 90-minute hearing that included 37 public comments statewide, Community and Regional Affairs Committee Chair Rep. Harriet Drummond, D-Anchorage, said the bill, which received no committee support, will not receive another hearing.

“I do not intend for this bill to travel any further,” she said. “It would have been helpful to hear from the commissioner [Adam Crum] on his position on this bill.

“It would also have been helpful to hear from the department as to their estimate of the costs that removing these funds from these vulnerable folks would generate in additional costs to the state. I have a feeling, without even having to do math, that it would far outweigh the $25 million that we are currently spending.”

Not long after the hearing started, House Majority Leader Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks, laid out his position. He followed up by imploring Drummond to put an end to the bill.

“I find it kinda hard to go after our most vulnerable population, the elderly,” he told Division of Public Assistance Director Shawnda O’Brien. “You look at the amount of income they have, it is super low to get to the $250 a month.

“And it’s either food or medication that they are going to have to buy. And without this, there is a lot of them that are going to really be suffering trying to get their medications paid for or other items like that. So this one I’m having a hard time adjusting to or agreeing with.”

Shortly afterward Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, challenged the administration’s priorities with O’Brien.

“Is this just another area where the governor’s highest priority is that $3,000 dividend and so to make that $3,000 dividend, we have to make these cuts that are reflected in this proposed legislative change?” he asked.

“The reduction to the program was the administration’s effort to reduce the budget to balance with our revenues,” O'Brien responded.

“So that it could make the governor’s priority that the $3,000 dividend is more important than the seniors,” Claman pressed.

“The way that it was presented or has been presented is that we are reducing our general fund spend to align with our revenue collections, what revenues we have in the state,” O’Brien said.

Public testimony came from communities across the state including Anchorage, Bethel, Cordova, Fairbanks, Homer, Kasilof, Kodiak, Palmer and Savoonga.

Rep. Sharon Jackson, R-Eagle River, helped close out the hearing with a message to those testifying.

“This didn’t just happen in January,” she said. “What appalls me is we did not have the foresight to prevent us from being where we are today. Thank you all that have testified. We love you and everything's going to be OK.”

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