It appears the Dunleavy administration belatedly realized that it was terrible politics to reduce benefits with little warning to upward of 19,383 poor Alaskans who are old, blind and disabled.
The reductions, about $100 a month for many, were supposed to start Jan. 1, but they are going to be largely reversed under a recalculated formula, according to a Department of Health and Social Services memo sent to Reps. Ivy Spohnholz and Tiffany Zulkosky on Monday.
The two had voiced opposition and asked questions about the unpublicized cuts. Some recipients may still see a benefit cut, but it’s not clear how many will be in that category or how much the cut will be.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed $7.5 million from the program in August, releasing a document that said benefits would decline on Jan. 1, though no amount was mentioned. The statement included this bit of nonsense as justification: “Reductions align with federal flexibilities to realign payments.”
The state more or less claims the cuts are all the fault of the federal government and not Dunleavy’s doing.
There are two reasons why I don’t believe that is the case.
First, the state funds nearly all of this program, which gives the state a lot of clout in determining the rules. The feds provide about $1.7 million. The Legislature approved $55.6 million in state funds, but Dunleavy cut that to $48 million.
Second, if the federal government really was the culprit, then the governor would not have been able to restore the benefits and instruct his health commissioner to use a new method of calculating benefits that is acceptable to the federal government.
The department claims that it learned from the feds that the wrong formula had been in use for 24 years and it had to cut benefits. Since Dunleavy has moved now to restore the benefits, that means the state was not forced by the federal government to cut benefits.
I take this as another sign that the recall campaign continues to have a positive impact on the course of state government.
The reductions received no news coverage and there was no state news release announcing the change early this month. The change made Monday has also not been publicized.
The department never responded to my inquiries in connection with two blog postings last week on the situation.
I had asked how many Alaskans will see a reduction in benefits, why this had been kept quiet by the administration and whether it would be announced to the public.
The change was hidden in the last column of a page in a document that means nothing to those who aren’t fluent in mumbo jumbo.
I can only conclude that the Dunleavy administration wanted to sneak this reduction through. By limiting communication to incomprehensible letters sent directly to the poor old people, the blind and disabled, there was a good chance that the change would not draw much public attention.
The recipients, after all, are mostly not big players in Alaska politics with connections in state government who can get bad policy calls reversed.
The letters sent last week were as dense as the bureaucracy could make them, hiding what appears to be the real reason for the cut — Dunleavy’s veto.
The memo to Spohnholz and Zulkosky said the old letters about the benefit cut should be ignored. There will be new letters, it seems.
Health Commissioner Adam Crum “alerted” Dunleavy that the benefit cuts, the result of two changes, would “reduce the payment levels to an unacceptable amount,” according to the memo. What is not mentioned is why the state waited until after the letters announcing the unacceptable amounts went out before the governor was alerted.
“Gov. Dunleavy agreed the newly calculated benefit level was unacceptable with both changes put in place,” Tony Newman, the legislative liaison for the health department, told the lawmakers.
He said Dunleavy decided that the department should use a different method of calculating the benefit “to minimize the impact to individuals because of changing the decades-long miscalculations.”
That is a reference to the alleged incorrect formula in use since 1995.
Newman said the Division of Public Assistance “will be sending out notices to the more than 19,383 individuals about this change and rework as many cases as possible before the next payment is processed in the system for January’s benefits. If any cases are not able to be worked prior to Jan. 1, a supplemental benefit will be issued to individuals in January.”
He said that some recipients could still see a cut in benefits under the new methodology. “If there is a reduction in benefits, the exact amount is not known and will need to be recalculated on a case-by-case basis,” he said.
The public assistance program provides cash to poor people who are old, blind or disabled to “help them remain independent.” Recipients can’t have resources of more than $2,000 for an individual or $3,000 for a couple.
Dermot Cole is a longtime Alaskan, an author of several history books and a former Daily News-Miner staff columnist who now writes an occasional column on Alaska politics and history. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.