Gov. Michael Dunleavy on Saturday said the Democrat-led House Majority is playing fast and loose with Alaskans concerning the shortfall in funds for the Senior Benefits program.
They underfunded the program last year, he said, even though they were warned about it running out of money.
Last week, the Department of Health and Social Services announced that for May and April, those seniors in the highest income bracket of the program — with an income of $26,355 — would not receive their expected $76 per month senior benefit check from the State. Senior Benefits is a program that was created in 2007 to help low- to moderate-income seniors make ends meet.
“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, said Dunleavy. “Why? Because they knowingly underfunded it.”
The $152 they will not be receiving for the two months equals about one half percent of their total yearly income.
Those same seniors, however, have lost more than $1,000 a year for the past three years in income from the diminished Permanent Fund dividend, which was reduced by half under the era of Gov. Walker.
Additionally, the House budget this year takes another $1,659 from Alaskans’ Permanent Fund dividends for 2019, which totals 6.29 percent of that senior citizen’s income of $26,355.
Dunleavy said that the Walker Administration warned lawmakers that the program was probably going to run out of funds before the end of 2019, but the Legislature passed the appropriation anyway.
Some 4,731 Alaskans over the age of 65 receive the $76 per month. Last year, the Democrat-led House Majority legislation, HB 236, reauthorized the Senior Benefits program but required DHSS to reduce or stop payments to the highest income tier if funding came up short. The Department could, according to the bill, rob another program for the funds, at its discretion.
Dunleavy said the DHSS is looking for what other funds might be available to come up with the $800,000 required to pay those Alaskans.
A letter signed by Speaker Bryce Edgmon, House Majority Leader Steve Thompson, and 17 other members of the Democrat-led Majority, was sent to Commissioner Adam Crum on Friday urged the commissioner to come up with the money. Republicans Thompson, Gary Knopp, and Gabrielle LeDoux signed the letter.
Rep. Ben Carpenter, a Republican, said it was ironic that Democrats were upset about the $76 being taken from lower-income seniors, when they show little concern for the past three years when $3,678 has been taken from those same seniors — and every other Alaskan — by shortchanging them on their Permanent Fund dividends.
The Senior Benefits program is managed by the Alaska Department of Health and Human Services and distributes a check each month to lower-income seniors.
There are about 4,731 individuals receiving $76 per month who will not receive a benefit the final two months of the fiscal year ending June 2019. The lowest income individuals eligible for higher payments of $175 and $250 a month will continue to receive monthly benefits.
A similar situation occurred in March 2016 when Senior Benefits payments went from $125 to $47 a month for the highest income tier.
“The House Majority needs to be honest with regard to the actions they took last year. They are fully aware that they chose to underfund Senior Benefits in their own budget last year under the previous Administration,” Dunleavy said.
Dunleavy’s proposed budget for 2020 would cut the program altogether. The House of Representatives’ version of the 2020 budget retains funding for it. That budget is now under review by the Senate.