Sen. Peter Micciche, who headed up the Senate’s subcommittee on Health and Social Services’ budget, took to the microphone on Thursday and explained to reporters that some unallocated budget cuts had unadvisedly been temporarily parked in the Division of Pioneer Homes budget by a legislative staffer, and were never intended to indicate that the Pioneers’ Homes would be closed.
He was tired of seniors being used as a political football. Micciche didn’t point the finger at the administration of Gov. Bill Walker, but the meaning was clear:
“We came down here to improve the lives of Alaskans and some things are so much more important than politics. And the way seniors have been kicked around as a political football this week…I’m going to stay on the high road…”
The Senate had given the Department of Health and Social Services approximately $30.7 million in flexibility to move around the department, a 5.7 percent cut in all, he said.
“This is a department with $2.6 billion in all funds, with 3,365 full-time mployees. We’re simply asking them to distribute this cut across all other categories of spend,” Micciche said
“We’re speaking specifically to seniors and veterans in our Pioneer Homes: That cut is not going to be directed at them,” Micciche said.
But that’s still the call of the governor, since those were, are, and will be unallocated cuts that can be moved around at his discretion. Alaska’s Executive Branch has wide latitude on unallocated funds, as has been seen with how Walker has used funds to open up gasline offices in Tokyo and Houston, and has hired a multitude of gasline consultants using departmental monies in his two and a half years at the helm.
Micciche’s insistence that seniors be held harmless was also a direct contradiction to the “shutdown memo” written by one of the governor’s staffers. The director of the division emailed residents and staff at the Palmer Veterans and Pioneers Home that closures would occur in August — the Palmer home and the Juneau home, specifically.
But on Thursday, the Senate as a whole made a rare statement with a “Sense of the Senate” message, clearing up the matter and reassuring Pioneer Home families that the veterans and other old-timers were safe from being kicked to the curb, from their perspective. “Sense of the Senate” is a rarely utilized legislative process, but that memo from the staff of Gov. Bill Walker necessitated something rare.
GOVERNOR BACKTRACKS, SAYS PIONEER HOMES ARE SAFE
The governor, for his part, sent a letter to Pioneer Homes staff and residents promising he will not close the homes.
His letter said he was caught by surprise and, without explaining that his department could have moved those cuts anywhere else, he said the reductions could have closed two Pioneer Homes on July 1 — a month earlier than the previous memo had warned home administrators. His budget, he reminded them, had included an increase for the Pioneer Homes.
Walker, unlike Micciche, was not contrite about the dust-up. He offered no apology and took no responsibility for his staff elevating the situation by issuing a shutdown memo before the budget had gone through conference committee. But a careful reader could see he was definitely “putting the toothpaste back in the tube.”
And yet, Walker chose not to explain why his administration had decided to close the only home that is eligible for federal funding, the Palmer Veterans’ and Pioneers’ Home.
The State receives up to $55 a day from the Veterans Administration for each veteran in the Palmer home. The home was remodeled a few years ago to be VA compliant, so that it could receive the support.
In the governor’s “Sustainable Future” conference that was held in Fairbanks in June of 2016, very few of his hand-picked participants defended the Pioneer Homes as important, as seen in the photo below from the event.
Green dots means it’s critical a critical service, red means it’s of low importance. Few of his brain trust in 2015 voted for Pioneer Homes, although they might vote differently today, considering the trouble such proposed cuts have caused the governor: