Governor & Senate: No Closures of Alaska’s Pioneer Homes
By MARY KAUFFMAN
April 14, 2017
The Sense of the Senate on the issue was unanimously approved Wednesday by the body, reiterating the Senate’s support for Alaska’s Pioneer Homes and assuring its residents that their housing will remain open and fully operational after final action is taken on the budget. “Sense of the Senate” is a rarely utilized legislative process where a body votes to take a formal position on an issue.
Commenting on the Sense of the Senate, Sen. Peter Micciche (R-Soldotna) said in a prepared statement, “The reason for the Sense of the Senate is simple: It’s a formal declaration that the Alaska Senate wants seniors in our great state to rest assured that we support them. There will not be any closures of the state’s Pioneer Homes."
Micciche said, "We know the budget process can often be confusing, and wanted to formally clarify that budget reductions will not adversely impact them. In other words, politics be damned. We want seniors, who have earned their place in secure housing in our state, to rest easy knowing that there are people fighting for them in the Senate. We will work with the other body, and the administration, to require that budget cuts are not taken out on them in a way that could compromise their secure housing.”
Sen. Shelley Hughes (R-Palmer) also issued a statement of the State of the Senate. Hughes said, “I want to assure the precious residents of the Alaska Veterans and Pioneers Home in Palmer and other communities that we are committed to protect and care for them. We will ensure they will be able to continue to live right where they are."
"Those who have served our country and our communities deserve our utmost respect and attention. It hurts me to know that some suffered anxiety unnecessarily over the misinformation that was circulating, and I want to apologize to each and every one for that. Please know that the threat has been corrected,” said Hughes.
In a letter dated April 13th to Pioneer Home Residents, Board Members, and Administrators, Governor Bill Walker wrote he was surprised when his budget was reduced by over $6.5 million in the Pioneer Homes' line items during the legislative process. "These reductions," said Walker, "could have closed two Pioneer Homes effective on July 1st, requiring significant transition time for residents, families and staff." Walker's FY 18 budget provided for a small increase to the Pioneer Homes' budget from $62.2 million to $62.6 million.
The Governor thanked the Senate for their "Sense of the Senate " to confirm their storng support of the Pioneer Homes and bringing finality to the issue. Walker wrote, " I will continue to do everything withing my power to assure no Pioneer Home will be closed while I am Governor."
Wednesday, some members of the Alaska House Majority Coalition also responded to attempts by some members of the Senate Majority and the House Minority to shift blame for this dangerous budget cut to Alaska Pioneer Homes to the administration of Governor Bill Walker.
The budget passed by the Alaska Senate and voted for by many members of the House Minority Tuesday included a $6.5 million cut to the line item for the Alaska Pioneer Homes. That budget cut would force the closure of possibly two Pioneer Homes.
House Finance Committee member Rep. Scott Kawasaki (D-Fairbanks) said, “The Senate Majority is playing a losing game by forcing through a dangerous cut to Pioneer Homes and then trying to blame Governor Walker when the impact of the cut became known.”
“We have been saying since day one that willy-nilly budget cuts come with consequences," said Kawasaki. "Even after working on their budget cuts for months, the Senate could find no place to better allocate another $6.5 million reduction than on the backs of Alaska seniors. The Senate Majority and House Minority might think they are winning some kind of political game by claiming they tried to make cuts and were stymied, but in reality they are playing with people’s lives, ”said Kawasaki.
Governor Walker’s administration this week took the only responsible course by notifying residents of the Palmer and Juneau Pioneer Homes and their families that the homes face closure if the budget reduction proposed by the Alaska Senate Majority is left in place. The version of the budget passed by the Alaska House funds Pioneer Homes at the level requested by Governor Walker to ensure all six Pioneer Homes remain open.
Alaska Senators still have the opportunity to recede from their ill-conceived cuts to Pioneer Homes, community health centers, and education by adopting the fully-funded budget from the Alaska House on a simple majority vote.
However, it is likely working out the differences between the House and Senate versions of the operating budget may be the task of a Conference Committee made up of members of both bodies that represent the Majority and Minority Caucuses.
“In the Senate, the Majority members vote as a block on the budget, so it’s possible members did not know what they were voting on when they passed a budget that threatens to evict seniors and elders from their home,” said House Majority Leader Rep. Chris Tuck (D-Anchorage).
Tuck said, “They should insist the cut be removed from consideration immediately. It would also be helpful if the Senate Majority decided to forego the practice of just throwing unallocated cuts into the budget. Such a practice is lazy and, as we have seen over the last few days, fraught with unintended consequences to Alaskan families.”
The Alaska House of Representatives voted Tuesday by a margin of 30-10 not to concur with the changes to the operating budget passed by the State Senate. The rejected changes included the $6.5 million cut to Pioneer Homes.
Members who chose to support the "irresponsible" cuts in the Senate version of the budget, including the cut to Pioneer Homes, were Reps. Birch, Chenault, Johnston, Knopp, Millett, Pruitt, Saddler, Talerico, Thompson, and Wilson.
State funding for Pioneer Homes is $62.2 million in the current fiscal year and Governor Walker proposed a slight increase to $62.6 million in FY 2018.
The Alaska House Majority Coalition stated in a news release they are disappointed that 10 members of the House Republican Caucus actually voted to concur with the Senate budget and its targeted cuts to vulnerable seniors and K-12 education, which will equate to the discharge of about 700 teachers across the state.
Several Alaska Senators also issued statements earlier this week regarding the cuts passed by the Alaska Senate:
Senator Berta Gardner said, "For some reason the Mat-Su Republican delegation issued a statement attempting to blame the governor for their own cuts to the Pioneer Homes to avoid the inevitable backlash from constituents when the ramifications of their cuts were discovered. This is another of many reasons to oppose the Senate Republicans’ budget that was unanimously rejected by the Alaska Senate Democrats."
Senator Dennis Egan (D-Juneau) said, "This cut is horrible. Look, my Mom spent her last years at the Pioneer Home. We needed help, and the compassionate, caring staff took really good care of her. Why would we ever put needy seniors out on the street? Stuff like this is why I voted against the budget this year."
"Cuts have consequences and the Senate Majority cannot deny they made these exact cuts." said Senator Tom Begich (D-Anchorage). "It's time to stop trying to balance the budget on the backs of children and the elderly and time to start talking about how we bring in new revenue. We owe it to the residents of the Pioneer Home who have done so much to make Alaska and this country great," said Begich.
"They say ‘cut, cut, cut,’ but when a cut comes to their own district, they change their tune. My district has already been cut severely. We owe our seniors more respect than this," stated Senator Donny Olson (D-Golovin).
"It's unfortunate the Senate Majority cut millions from the Pioneer Home, endangering the welfare of Seniors all across Alaska," said Senator Bill Wielechowski. "I look forward to working to restore these misguided cuts."
Again, “Sense of the Senate” is a rarely utilized legislative process where a body votes to take a formal position on an issue. Alaska Senators still have the opportunity to recede from their cuts to Pioneer Homes, community health centers, and education by adopting the fully-funded budget from the Alaska House on a simple majority vote.
it is likely working out the differences between the House and Senate versions of the operating budget may be the task of a Conference Committee made up of members of both bodies that represent the Majority and Minority Caucuses.
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