Indignant Mat-Su legislators go silent on protecting vulnerable Pioneer Home residents

The Mat-Su delegation was outraged.

“Using Alaska’s most vulnerable community members and veterans as bargaining chips is deplorable,” they said, steamed at Alaska’s governor for what they claimed was a betrayal of the residents of the Pioneer Home in Palmer.

This happened on April 11, 2017. They complained that Gov. Bill Walker was threatening to shut down the Palmer Pioneer Home because the Senate had approved a budget cutting the Pioneer Home appropriation.

All nine of the grandstanding signatories are still in office, eight of them in the Legislature and one of them in the governor’s office—Gov. Mike Dunleavy. Sen. David Wilson, Sen. Shelley Hughes, Rep. David Eastman, Rep. Cathy Tilton, Rep. DeLena Johnson, Rep. Mark Neuman, Rep. George Rauscher, and Rep. Colleen Sullivan-Leonard.

“The Senate majority incorporated significant spending reductions in its version of the budget; however, those reductions did not dictate closing any of Alaska’s Pioneer Homes,” the Mat-Su Nine claimed in 2017.

They wanted budget cuts. They demanded budget cuts. But they didn’t want this budget cut.

They said it should be easy. All Walker had to do was to move the money and cut something else that they couldn’t identify.

Worst of all, the Mat-Su Nine refused to admit that the budget approved by Sen. Mike Dunleavy and his Republican colleagues had specifically demanded a cut in Pioneer Home spending.

Two years ago the Senate had endorsed a 10 percent budget cut for the Pioneer Home system, a $6.4 million reduction from a $60.7 million budget. Senators later said they made a mistake by identifying the cut, but they were sure that some unknown item could be reduced instead.

There were 68 seniors at the Palmer home and 101 employees at the time. Closing one home would not have been enough to make up for the entire Senate cut, so the state was looking at costs of closing the Juneau home as well.

As soon as senators discovered that they had voted for a cut in Pioneer Home spending, Dunleavy and others in the Senate and the rest of the Mat-Su Nine began dancing backwards as fast as possible, saying they were not to blame.

It was a weak argument, seeing as how the cut was specified in the Senate budget on this page. The cut could have been spread through the health department by the Senate, but it wasn’t.

Dunleavy had argued during budget meetings that the governor should not have the authority to move money around and it was up to the Legislature to make decisions on specifics. He also argued against being specific.

"There were reductions within that budget, but not specifically targeting specific Pioneer Homes by this Senate Finance or the Senate, is that correct?" Dunleavy asked in a 2017 meeting.

Yes and no. The reductions targeted the Pioneer Homes specifically, not the Palmer home, though he and others didn’t notice any of this until after the Senate voted.

Now there never was a real threat that the Pioneer Home in Palmer would close. The budget was amended as it was clear no one wanted to shut it down. It was a good example of why budget cuts are hard.

I bring this up now because it is striking that the Mat-Su Nine are not outraged at the actions of the Dunleavy administration in slapping the highest rate hikes in history on vulnerable Pioneer Home residents. They never ran for office on promises to get gigantic increases in Pioneer Home rates.

As a candidate for governor, Dunleavy claimed he would not cut the budget, meaning no rate increase, though he decided after the election that Pioneer Homes residents who have financial resources should pay for all the costs of their care with no subsidy.

This is a real betrayal of vulnerable Alaskans, not the political stunt of 2017.

Dermot Cole7 Comments