Gov. Mike Dunleavy said he will not veto for a second time a $20 million appropriation for Alaska’s Senior Benefits Payment Program, bringing relief to the 11,000-plus seniors who received monthly needs-based checks.

Dunleavy broke the news on Monday, Aug. 12, to several dozen elderly who were eating lunch at the Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center.

After sitting down with several of the center’s guests, Dunleavy addressed the entire group before mingling some more.

On June 28, Dunleavy included the senior benefits program among his more than $400 million in budget vetoes. Last month the Legislature restored more than $300 million in vetoes, including senior benefits, in House Bill 2001.

Dunleavy said the decision not to veto the appropriation again was based on, “fantastic feedback from seniors, from their families, from other Alaskans. That feedback really resonated not just with myself, but a lot of our legislators.”

The program issues monthly checks to low-to-moderate income residents ages 65 and older. The state uses a sliding scale paying either $76, $175 or $250 each month. Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum says the money will be paid retroactive to July 1, the beginning of the current fiscal year.

House Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage, who also serves as co-chair for the Health and Social Services Committees, said she was relieved to hear of Dunleavy’s announcement.

But she says seniors should never have had to wait this long for their checks.

“I just wish the governor had chosen to support this program sooner,” Spohnholz said. “Some people have gone months without receiving their senior benefits this year because of them canceling the program temporarily this spring and then the line-item veto earlier this year. It didn’t have to be that way.”

Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson, D-Anchorage, said in a prepared statement she hopes lawmakers can avoid this tug-o-war next year.

"Seniors need and deserve stability,” Gray-Jackson said. “They have helped build this great state, and we must show them our gratitude and support when they are in need.” 

Gov. Dunleavy meets with people to discuss senior benefits on Aug. 12 at the Eagle River Chugiak Senior Center.

Mary E. Johnson, 84, who volunteers at the center, said she welcomed the news, but also added that she harbors no ill will toward Dunleavy.

“He came before he was governor and had lunch at our place, and sat next to me,” she said. “We had a nice conversation.”

In April, the department issued notices to those receiving $76 a month saying the state did not have enough money for May and June payments. Lawmakers also appropriated $800,000 to cover a shortfall at the end of the 2019 fiscal year, which ended June 30.

Crum said he did not know if the administration will cover those payments.

After meeting with seniors, Dunleavy is still considering keeping other appropriations restored by lawmakers in the most recent special session.

He must also consider whether to accept the $1,600 Permanent Fund dividend payment lawmakers approved or veto it and call lawmakers back into special session to further consider his $3,000 proposal, which aligns with the statutory formula.

He could also accept it and call for a third session to fund the balance.

The debate over funding the senior benefits program, however, may not be over, even with the pledge to accept the Legislature’s appropriation.

Dunleavy still has a bill to repeal the program outright under HB 60 and SB 58.

In April, the House Community and Regional Affairs held a 90-minute hearing on the bill.

It was widely panned by the committee, whose co-chair Harriett Drummond, D-Anchorage, said the bill had no future. It also drew a quick rebuke from House Majority Leader Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks, who quickly laid out his position.

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

The committee also heard from communities across the state including Anchorage, Bethel, Cordova, Fairbanks, Homer, Kasilof, Kodiak, Palmer and Savoonga. No one supported the bill.

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