Looming state government shutdown would see benefits for low-income seniors cut

 The Alaska State Capitol
The Alaska State Capitol (KTUU)
Published: Jun. 24, 2021 at 3:52 PM AKDT|Updated: Jun. 24, 2021 at 6:35 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - A looming state government shutdown has some seniors groups nervous.

On the chopping block is a benefits program for low-income Alaska seniors. More than 11,000 older Alaskans receive that monthly payment.

Marge Stoneking, a spokesperson for the Alaska chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons, said that benefit is a critical part of the senior safety net. She doesn’t know what will happen to the payments during a potential shutdown.

“It’s intended to help keep our elders, 65-plus, low-income folks, in their homes for as long as possible,” she said. “There is no discretionary spending when one is at the poverty level.”

Nona Safra, an advocate for Alaska seniors, is concerned, too. Low-income seniors can receive between $76 a month and $250 per month under the benefit program.

The monthly payment was temporarily cut by Dunleavy two years ago, causing widespread outrage before being restored.

Safra advises seniors to be prepared now and assume that the Legislature does not resolve the budget impasse before July 1. She said impacted seniors should go to the Department of Fish and Game and get proxy fishing approval. They can also go to food banks and seniors centers for help, she added.

There would be dozens of other impacts of a shutdown. Alaska State Parks would close and so would Division of Motor Vehicles offices, stopping Alaskans from renewing their driver’s licenses.

“Well, we’re going to have a lot of law-abiding citizens who are not going to be able to abide by the law, won’t we?” Safra said.

Another impact could be on property sales. The recorder’s office at the Department of Natural Resources would be offline, which may stop people from finalizing sales of homes and property.

Dan Saddler, a spokesperson for the department, said registering a home sale with the state is not legally required.

“However, the recorder’s office clients are the title insurance companies who make their money verifying that titles to real property considered for transactions are clear and unencumbered,” he added.

The title insurance industry would effectively be left to decide what to do, Saddler said, and the department doesn’t know what would happen if the recorder’s office closes.

The budget impasse comes because the Dunleavy administration says it can’t spend from a “defective” budget during the next fiscal year due to a failed procedural vote in the House of Representatives. It has sued a legislative agency to defend that position.

At the same time, the administration is planning to fund some “essential services” if a shutdown does occur, spending from that same “defective budget.”

Neil Steininger, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, said the administration is facing a balancing act of constitutional obligations. The state can’t spend money from the budget, but it also has to spend from that budget to ensure life, health and safety are protected during a shutdown.

The state released a list of critical state services on Wednesday evening that would be impacted by a government shutdown. Many agencies would see “partial shutdowns” or “reduced staffing levels.”

The choice of which state services would keep being delivered and which would stop has raised some eyebrows about what is considered essential to Alaskans’ life, health and safety.

Some state agencies, such as the Alaska Highway System, would be fully operational during a shutdown. The investment managers of the Permanent Fund would also be called back to work.

The Dunleavy administration says that commercial and sports fisheries would be operating normally, too.

Nicole Kimball, a spokesperson for the Pacific Seafood Processors Association, urged legislators to avert a shutdown. She said any disruption to commercial fisheries, however brief, with state biologists being recalled would be devastating, particularly for Bristol Bay at the peak of the sockeye salmon run.

Kate Sheehan, the director of the Division of Personnel and Labor Relations with the Department of Administration, said the state is compiling an exact number of employees who would be laid off.

Currently, leave would be cashed for thousands of those impacted state employees if a shutdown occurs. That could cost the state as much as $190 million, Sheehan said.

Correction: The article originally said the state government shutdown will stop people from finalizing sales of homes and property. That may or may not be case, depending on title companies.

Editor’s note: A quote from Nona Safra was moved in the story.

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