Legislative update with Sen. Gary Stevens: public assistance programs and the PFD
The Alaska legislative session is in full swing in Juneau, with big-ticket issues before legislators including state spending and the retirement system.
Over the next few weeks, KBBI will check in weekly with a Republican who represents District C, including the southern Kenai Peninsula, Kodiak and Seward, for the latest in the session.
On Thursday, KBBI’s Hope McKenney spoke with Senate President Senator Gary Stevens about the backlog in public assistance programs — like Medicaid and food stamps — and the ongoing battle over the Permanent Fund Dividend.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
HOPE MCKENNEY: Homer residents are really struggling in the midst of both the food stamp backlog and the Medicaid backlog. I was wondering if you can talk about how the Division of Public Assistance is working to alleviate this? When can residents expect relief from the backlog?
SEN. GARY STEVENS: No, but it's a really important one, Hope. We just have an enormous problem in this state, a lot of people have food insecurity, and they need help. In fact, I just heard the figure yesterday that one out of eight Alaskans need help with food, with food stamps. So it's a big issue. And it's one that has to be solved. I know what happened honestly, is in past budgets, frankly the governor reduced the number of personnel in that department. And they were simply not able to keep up the work, they needed more help and more people, and were way behind — months and months behind — in processing applications.
So we did just recently put some money into that. It's called the Fast Track Supplemental [Budget], which is a mouthful, but it's a budget bill that was given to us by the governor, it passed both the House and the Senate, and what it includes is $3.7 million for SNAP benefits. So $3.7 million, that should help solve the problem: They'll hire the employees that they need to make sure that people who apply for food stamps get them. And also there's money there to make sure that they upgrade their IT system. Another one of the problems is they had too few people and an IT system that one computer couldn't speak to another computer, and they had to hand enter a lot of things. So those two issues should solve that problem.
We know there's an enormous need out there. And, you know, we heard stories in some of the villages that some folks were sent to the hospital for malnutrition. There's no reason that in a civilized society that they should not be able to help people who are poor people, who need food in getting the help they need. So hopefully that'll be solved. The department tells us it will be solved when this money arrives.
MCKENNEY: And so do we expect that residents will actually start seeing some relief from the backlog soon?
STEVENS: We've been promised that by the department and by the governor and the governor is paying special attention to that, his staff is paying attention to it, so all we can do is give them the money and hopefully solve the problem.
MCKENNEY: So what's the latest on the new state benefits system proposal, Senate Bill 88.
STEVENS: So years ago, we did away with what's called the "defined benefits plan." Many people retired in Alaska under defined benefits, and that means that people receive a pension. But unfortunately, we found ourselves really in the hole with an unfunded mandate that we had to pay off — we're still paying it off. It was a very generous retirement program that we had for many years, but it was just unsustainable. We couldn't afford to continue it. So we did away with what's called a "defined benefit," and went to a "defined contribution plan," which does not give people a pension.
Well, now we find ourselves in a pickle because policemen and firemen and schoolteachers and state employees are working now in a system that does not provide them a pension. And we're losing people almost as fast as we can hire them. Teachers come and stay for three, four or five years, and then they take the benefits they have and go to other states where they know they'll have a pension when they decide to retire. So what this does, Senate Bill 88, it brings back what's called a "defined benefit option." It's not as generous as the old system — the old system I said was really too generous and we couldn't afford it. And primarily, the way we're going to be saving money, I think, is through medical costs. It would not be quite so generous. It'll provide a pension, a good pension, but not the medical costs. So people, when they reach 65 to be covered by Social Security, if they retire before that, they'll have to buy their own insurance for that interim before they reach a period where they get Social Security.
So anyway, that bill is working its way through — it's in Senate Labor and Commerce right now, and they've had several days of public testimony. And they'll probably be making some amendments. I can't tell you for sure, but I think that'll probably be moving out of Labor and Commerce hopefully this coming week.
MCKENNEY: So Friday, March 31, at midnight is the deadline to file for the Permanent Fund Dividend. What should applicants and our listeners know about the PFD this year?
STEVENS: Well, the first thing to note is make sure you file. If you don't file, there's almost no excuse. I mean, we can help defend people who, and we do, and sometimes something goes wrong or somebody from the Permanent Fund Dividend saying they filed it and their money's on the way and they don't get it. So we're able to help people on some issues, but we can't help you if you didn't file on time. If you do not file on time, there's no recourse really, you do not receive that money. So let's see, what else was your other question about the PFD? What you can expect? You know, it's going to be between between maybe a $1,200 PFD and a $2,500 PFD.
But if it's the higher PFD, we're gonna have to find a way to pay for that. And the House is saying a 2% sales tax. I mean, that never makes much sense to me. If we tax you as a member of the public, we tax you 2% more in order to get you a higher Permanent Fund Dividend, it doesn't make much sense to me that we take money out of one of your pockets and give it back in the other pocket. So we'll see how it turns out. We're listening to all options, listening to the bills as they move through, and at the end of the day, there will be a decision on what we're going to do and how much that dividend will be.