04 Mar, 2024
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Senate advances bills to extend senior benefits, boost civil legal aid for low-income Alaskans

By Sean Maguire

Updated: February 23, 2024 Published: February 23, 2024

JUNEAU — The Alaska Senate on Wednesday advanced a measure to permanently extend a benefits program for low-income seniors.

Senate Bill 170 passed unanimously from the Senate along with three other bills, including a measure that boosts free civil legal aid for low-income Alaskans, which is often used in domestic violence cases.

The state’s senior benefits program pays three tiers of payments, ranging from $76 to $250 per month. As of December of 2022just under 9,000 older Alaskans got the payments.

Sen. Scott Kawasaki, a Fairbanks Democrat, said the program provided “an amazingly small amount” to seniors 65 or older who are on strict income limits. He said low-income older Alaskans often struggle to balance high costs of energy, prescription medicines and food.

Kawasaki’s bill was originally introduced to extend the state’s senior benefits program to 2032 at a cost of roughly $25 million per year. The bipartisan Senate majority amended the measure to make the program permanent.

In 2019, Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed senior benefits from that year’s budget, but he restored those payments after hearing strong and widespread public opposition. Since then, the program has enjoyed strong bipartisan support.

Palmer Republican Sen. Shelley Hughes, one of three non-majority senators, said that she encouraged churches, charities and communities to support elder Alaskans, but sometimes that wasn’t enough and the state needed to step in, adding, “our seniors are treasures in our community. ”

The Senate on Wednesday also unanimously approved Senate Bill 104. The measure would be more than double state funding for the Alaska

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Alaska Senate bill proposes more legal aid for domestic violence victims, others seeking help


the Alaska State Capitol
The front of the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau is seen on Wednesday, April 12, 2023. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

An overloaded nonprofit that provides free legal help would be able to serve more Alaskans in need if legislation proposed by Sen. Forrest Dunbar, D-Anchorage, becomes law.

Senate Bill 104, discussed by the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday, would direct 25% of the Alaska Court System’s filing fees to the Alaska Legal Services Corporation, up from 10% in an existing state law.

Dunbar, a licensed attorney, formerly worked for the agency on a variety of cases.

“They provide absolutely crucial legal services, free legal services, to those who can’t afford them. Things like family law, landlord-tenant (disputes); they are also the state’s largest provider of free legal services to survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault,” Dunbar said.

One case near the end of his time working with the corporation stuck in his mind.

“I worked on a case where family members were trying to win custody of a little girl who had been abused almost to the point of death. And they were helping to try and basically save this little girl. And it remains — even though I did a very tiny bit of work in that case — it remains the most important legal work I think I’ve ever done,” he said.

While the Alaska Constitution guarantees a defense attorney to someone in a criminal charge, there’s no such guarantee in a civil lawsuit.

The corporation, founded in 1967, is a nonprofit intended to fill that gap and provide help to Alaskans who can’t afford it.

But, said the corporation’s executive director, Nikole Nelson, the gap is now so large that the corporation can’t fill it.

“This gap has now reached a crisis level because

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Larger state investment in civil legal aid is needed

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Maine’s chronic shortage of attorneys for low-income criminal defendants has rightly gotten a lot of attention. The US and state constitutions guarantee those accused of crimes a right to a speedy trial, a pledge that Maine is in danger of not fulfilling as the state’s program struggles to recruit and retain lawyers.

Maine also faces a critical shortage of lawyers to represent low-income Mainers in civil cases, such as those involving evictions, protection from abuse and discrimination.

In Maine, there are more than 360,000 low-income people who are eligible for free legal services, and most of them will face at least one civil legal issue during their lives. But, too few will get the representation they need and deserve. This puts their wellbeing at risk and it adds to the backlogs in our court system.

As part of their budget deliberations, lawmakers will consider more funding for these needed legal services. Additional state support for civil legal aid would be a good investment.

“Civil legal services are at the very heart of the goal of justice for all,” Andrew Mead, senior associate justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, wrote in a recent column published by the Bangor Daily News. “We must invest in both our public defense system and our civil legal aid infrastructure. Without access to legal counsel in both kinds of cases, those who can’t afford a lawyer are at an unfair disadvantage as they attempt to navigate the legal landscape.”

Maine is currently meeting less than a third of the requests for civil legal help, according to a recent report. These services are provided by

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