Dunleavy: Legislature 'knowingly underfunded' Senior Benefits program ahead of suspension
Days after an announcement that thousands of low-income seniors will not get state-paid benefits in May or June, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said legislators need to be honest with Alaskans about why it happened.
“Members of the House Majority are quite frankly, being disingenuous with Alaskans when they express shock and disappointment that the Senior Benefits program will not have enough revenue for its highest income seniors for two months," the governor said in a prepared statement Saturday. “Why? Because they knowingly underfunded it.”
The initial email from Department of Health and Social Services announcing the suspension was sent to lawmakers Thursday morning. It stated more than 4,700 individuals in the highest income tier who receive of benefits of $76 per month would not get those payments in May or June “due to insufficient funding." Seniors receiving payments of $175 and $250 per month — about 6,866 individuals according to numbers from the email — were not expected have their benefits suspended.
Members of the Alaska House of Representatives responded, some calling the stoppage "unacceptable." On Friday, 19 members of the House majority, expressed their disappointment in the decision in a letter to DHSS.
"Cutting this program suddenly with two weeks' notice is immoral and reflects poorly on our priorities as as state," they stated in the letter.
The lawmakers went further to ask two questions of the department: Why didn’t DHSS request supplemental funds to avoid the shortfall, and why wasn’t a $20 million discretionary fund used to resolve the problem?
However, in his news release Saturday the governor said the Walker administration warned lawmakers last spring that the program might be underfunded but passed the appropriation anyway.
“The House Majority needs to be honest with regard to the actions they took last year," the governor said. "They are fully aware that they chose to underfund Senior Benefits in their own budget last year under the previous Administration.”
The governor's release went on to say it was the House majority's own bill that caused the suspension.
"In fact, last year’s House Majority legislation (HB 236) reauthorizing Senior Benefits required the department to reduce or even stop payments to the highest income tier if funding was insufficient," the administration asserts in the statement.
The statute does not use the word "require." It reads:
Sec. 47.45.301. Alaska senior benefits payment program.
(a) The Alaska senior benefits payment program is established in the Department of Health and Social Services to provide cash benefits as far as practicable under appropriations provided by law.
(b) The department shall administer the program and adopt regulations under AS 44.62 (Administrative Procedure Act) to carry out the purposes of the program.
(c) If the department estimates that appropriations for the program are insufficient to meet the demands of the program in a fiscal year, the department may reduce or eliminate the cash benefit available to recipients.
Members of the state Senate sent their own letter to DHSS on Thursday, asking how and why the shortfall occurred and if the $20 million in discretionary funds has already been used elsewhere.
Dunleavy said Saturday that DHSS officials are looking at possible options to transfer funds from another program that would not cause underfunding somewhere else.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a letter to DHSS from the Alaska Senate.
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