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Alaskans may receive energy-relief payment

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is asking the state Legislature to give every Alaskan $1,200 as energy cost relief.

"It's a one-time, special return of the vast wealth that Alaska has right now. We're returning it to the resource owners, the people of Alaska," the governor said on Friday. "I am confident the people of Alaska can spend the surplus dollars better than state government is going to spend them."

The $741 million proposal was criticized by some legislators as a shortsighted government handout and applauded by others as needed help with high energy costs.

Palin said she wants the one-time payments to go out to Alaskans by September. All Alaskans who have qualified for the 2008 permanent-fund dividend would be eligible for the $1,200 in addition to their PFD. Anyone else who can show on an application they have lived in the state for at least 180 days also would receive the $1,200, under her proposal. The federal government would take a bite out of it through income taxes, though, just like the PFD.

Palin said the money for the payments would come from the windfall surplus the state is getting because of the high oil prices. The state could collect $2.7 billion more in oil taxes and royalties than forecast even if the prices gradually decline over the next year, according to the revenue department.

The payments replace a proposal Palin dropped to give $100-a-month energy debit cards to Alaskans for year. The governor said that turned out too expensive to administer and the debit cards wouldn't work in 174 rural villages.

The governor also is proposing to suspend the state gasoline tax (eight cents a gallon) and marine fuel tax (five cents a gallon) for one year. Palin had previously called for $475 million in state grants to utilities so they would lower their rates for residential and business customers. The utility grants weren't part of the bill Palin produced Friday for the Legislature. The governor's office said the grants are still on the table but details have to be worked out.

People could use their $1,200 for whatever they wanted, although the idea is to help with high energy costs. State House Finance Committee Co-Chair Kevin Meyer said at a time when the economy is slow, it wouldn't be so bad if people used the money to a buy that big screen television at Costco. They might have been holding off on such purchases because of high energy bills, he said.

"Now they can buy that TV too, which helps the person working at Costco and helps the overall economy," he said.

Meyer supports the payments but sees downsides. They could be hard for the state to stop after just one time, he said, and it might not play well in the Lower 48.

It could be harder for Alaska to get federal assistance for projects and programs if people in the Lower 48 think the state is the spoiled rich kid on the block, legislators said.

But Palin said it shows the rest of America that Alaskans are independent enough to take care of its energy issues itself instead of going to Congress for subsidies.

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Harry Crawford said he was disappointed in Palin's new plan. He said it lacks enough emphasis on providing long-term, affordable, renewable energy for Alaskans such as hydroelectric, geothermal and wind power.

"I know there are people in dire straits around the state. This $1,200 is not going to make a long-term difference in their lives," he said. "I'm not saying this program won't go through. It just needs some commitments for the future."

Environmentalists and others have said Palin is encouraging consumption rather than conservation by handing out money. Conservative critics have attacked it as socialism, comparing Palin to Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez.

Palin said it's a short-term fix at a time when people are hurting from the same high-energy prices that are bringing huge amounts of money to the state. Her energy team is working on a long-term plan to promote conservation and lasting solutions, she said. That will be ready by the end of the year, she said.

Palin said it's a conservative program—not socialism. It's returning surplus money from the state government to the Alaskans who own the oil, she said.

"A socialist program would entail hoarding the state surplus and spending it with the idea that government and bureaucrats do a better job spending the money than individual Alaskans," she said.

People in rural Alaska and Fairbanks have much higher energy costs than those in Anchorage. Some legislators, including Anchorage Democratic Rep. Mike Doogan, oppose sending everyone a check regardless if they need it. They've said it should be based on how much money a person makes and where they live.

"Frankly, I'm not convinced everybody in Alaska needs help with their energy costs," Doogan said earlier this week.

Palin said there are other state programs targeted to low income areas. But, for this program, "I wanted resource wealth to be shared equitable, everybody owns resources equally in Alaska, that's per our Constitution."

Palin's proposal also calls for low-interest loans to commercial fishermen to purchase more fuel-efficient engines.

Fairbanks Republican Rep. Jay Ramras, who's been unfriendly toward Palin's proposal to give TransCanada $500 million to pursue a natural gas pipeline, said he can support anything that helps state residents cope with high energy costs.

"If you're going to vote for $500 million for a Canadian corporation, you d--- well better vote yes for energy relief for Alaskans," he said.