By SEAN COCKERHAM
Anchorage Daily News
December 16, 2005
That's right. Free money.
North Pole Republican Sen. Gene Therriault plans to introduce a bill that would give $250 to every person who qualified for an Alaska Permanent Fund dividend last year. He said the idea is to use a chunk of the state's projected jumbo budget surplus to help Alaskans cope with higher energy costs.
"Whether they are commuting or heating with oil, everybody from month to month has fairly high energy needs," Therriault said.
People could use their checks however they wanted. They could purchase triple-pane windows to reduce energy costs or buy a round at a bar.
Unusual proposals are not uncommon as the annual legislative session draws near. They often die from indifference. But Therriault is no backbencher in Juneau. He was president of the state Senate two years ago and holds considerable clout in the Republican majority.
His idea won't get ignored.
"Absolutely I think it worthy of a hearing. It is worthy of discussion," said Fairbanks Republican Sen. Gary Wilken, co-chairman of the influential Senate Finance Committee.
Wilken added, though, that it would have to compete with many other ideas for spending state money. For example, there are several proposals for restarting the flow of state cash aid to local governments. That's on top of education, public employee pensions, Medicaid and all the other usual expenses.
Juneau Republican Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, a member of the state House Finance Committee, was skeptical. He said people might just use the money to help finance their Hawaiian vacations.
"It's got populist appeal. But who is to say that people are going to use it to pay for fuel or (heating) oil?" he said.
Weyhrauch said he'd rather the state help pay for projects such as heat pumps, fuel cells and solar power that help Alaskans reduce their dependence on costly oil.
Legislators project the state will have a budget surplus of around $1.2 billion in the coming year. Therriault would spend about $200 million of that.
Most would be for the $250 checks, but he is also calling for about $6 million to take care of a shortfall in the state's rural energy subsidy program. And he wants a $10 million increase for the Low Income Weatherization Program.
The surplus comes from the whopping oil prices; most of Alaska's state general fund comes from taxes and royalties on oil. Therriault said it's appropriate when the state is making so much money from high oil prices to give some back to Alaskans who are suffering from those same prices.
He said it would be a one-time payout. That's better than spending the surplus on programs that would then need to be cut when oil income drops, Therriault argued.
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