"News" of Emmonak's Pain Not "New": A Crisis Many Legislators Tried To Prevent

From a Les Gara press release:

The increased attention the residents of Emmonak are receiving is long overdue. The crisis isn't, however, a surprise to the Governor or anyone in the Legislature.

Emmonak Alaska villagers

Recent press reports fail to note that Alaska 's rural fuel cost crisis was a loud topic of debate during the August Special session, when the Governor and other policymakers were told fuel costs were going to reach and exceed $9/gallon in some villages. The following summary is being provided to give those reporting on this issue some context on this issue, and the efforts many made to prevent the problems faced by residents in Alaska 's small communities like Emmonak.

During last August's Energy Special Session, the press focused its attention on Governor Palin's plan to send Alaskans a $1,200 check. What went unreported was the call from rural Alaska for something better, and their warning of this winter's impending crisis. Many legislators worked to replace Governor Palin's plan with one that would have gone a long way to relieving the pain being felt across Rural Alaska today, and even in communities like Fairbanks , where high heating costs are a growing concern. I reported on the impending rural fuel crisis in my newsletter following last August's Energy Special Session ("Pushing Compassion: Walking A Mile In A Bethel Resident's Shoes. . . . Giving everyone the same help, and ignoring that some people in this state are struggling while some are not, seemed like policy that could be improved upon a lot," Aug. 11, 2008 Office Newsletter)

The following is a short summary of the efforts of many to address this problem during last summer's Special Session on energy relief. Those who tried to avert the current crisis facing residents in communities like Emmonak fell short on votes. It is expected a similar debate will arise this session as leaders try to find a way to avoid a repeat of this winter's rural Alaska energy crisis.

In 2008 the Bi-Partisan Senate coalition offered a plan by Senate Finance Chairmen Lyman Hoffman (D-Bethel) and Bert Stedman (R-Sitka) to provide significant emergency heating assistance to Alaskans in Fairbanks and in Rural Alaska, to offset the cost of heating fuel. And they offered a plan to offset the high cost of electricity for the highest cost communities, like Emmonak and Lime Village . Their effort passed the Senate in SB 4002, but was rejected by the Republican-led House. These efforts were also opposed by the Palin Administration, which focused its lobbying efforts on a $1,200 Energy Rebate check to all Alaskans.

A like plan was offered in the House, and supported by House Democrats (Senate Bill 4002, House Floor Amendments 3, 4 & 6, Aug. 8, 2008), but also didn't pass the Legislature. The plan that passed, while a significant improvement on prior energy relief laws, focused largely on the Governor's $1,200 Energy Rebate payment, and contained lesser improvements in heating and electrical cost assistance.

Here are provisions that would have greatly reduced the problems rural residents are facing, and that were contained in the Bi-Partisan Senate and House Democratic proposals.

1. Heating Fuel Assistance. An emergency grant would have offered assistance to residents paying over $3/gallon for heating fuel (or $3/mcf for gas) up to 850 gallons of fuel (or the equivalent measure of natural gas). The cost in excess of $3/gallon for this allotment would have been paid for by the emergency grant, and would have benefitted residents in rural areas, as well as residents in Fairbanks , who are increasingly facing high heating fuel costs.

2. Low Income Heating Assistance Program (LIHEAP). For many years recently retired Rep. Mary Nelson (D-Bethel) took the lead to try to get Alaska to join the many states that add funds to this federal heating assistance program. LIHEAP offers heating fuel assistance to low income families, and working families that earn up to 225% of the poverty level. Last regular session Nelson succeeded, gained nearly unanimous bi-partisan support, and the state provided an important but modest supplement to this federal funding.

However during testimony the Palin Administration and legislators heard in August, it became clear that with fuel costs approaching and exceeding $9/gallon in some areas, additional LIHEA funding was needed. If the state had the money to spend $700 million on a $1,200 check to all Alaskans, regardless of need, it had $20 million to supplement this important heating assistance plan. That attempt, unfortunately, failed along party lines.

3. Electrical Assistance. The state has a longstanding difference in the electric rates paid by rural and urban residents. The Legislature, in a bi-partisan fashion, took some important steps and added to the Governor's $1,200 rebate plan by improving Alaska 's Power Cost Equalization law. That law provides assistants to residents in communities that pay high electric costs, and it was favorably amended in August.

The current situation faced by rural residents is worse than ever, given that off-road communities had to pay pre-winter fuel prices that approached and exceeded $9/gallon in some communities. No one in the Legislature ahs a magic plan to fully solve the problems faced by rural residents. But some strong efforts were made last year, and as this current crisis is reported on, that is worth noting. And, to the extent some believe the current fuel crisis is unanticipated, the facts show differently. The Governor and the Legislature were warned of this winter's problems. Policymakers just chose different courses to address the problem - some better and some worse, depending on your perspective.

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