February 13, 2005: Headlines: Benefits: Anchorage Daily News: Several members of the Alaska House of Representatives are trying again this year -- for the fourth time since 1999 -- to restore the Peace Corps to the list of allowable out-of-state absences for the dividend, the same as military service, college, receiving medical care and serving in the merchant marine

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Peace Corps Library: Benefits: February 13, 2005: Headlines: Benefits: Anchorage Daily News: Several members of the Alaska House of Representatives are trying again this year -- for the fourth time since 1999 -- to restore the Peace Corps to the list of allowable out-of-state absences for the dividend, the same as military service, college, receiving medical care and serving in the merchant marine

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Several members of the Alaska House of Representatives are trying again this year -- for the fourth time since 1999 -- to restore the Peace Corps to the list of allowable out-of-state absences for the dividend, the same as military service, college, receiving medical care and serving in the merchant marine

Several members of the Alaska House of Representatives are trying again this year -- for the fourth time since 1999 -- to restore the Peace Corps to the list of allowable out-of-state absences for the dividend, the same as military service, college, receiving medical care and serving in the merchant marine

Several members of the Alaska House of Representatives are trying again this year -- for the fourth time since 1999 -- to restore the Peace Corps to the list of allowable out-of-state absences for the dividend, the same as military service, college, receiving medical care and serving in the merchant marine

McGuire tries again for Peace Corps PFD

JUNEAU: Volunteers dropped from dividend list in 1998; missionaries also discussed.

By LARRY PERSILY
Anchorage Daily News

Published: February 13th, 2005
Last Modified: February 13th, 2005 at 04:07 PM

JUNEAU -- Alaskans who serve as Peace Corps volunteers and church missionaries share many of the same economic hardships while enjoying the rewards of helping others. They also share in the loss of their Permanent Fund dividends. Neither is on the list of allowable absences for the state's annual share-the-wealth payment.

Several members of the Alaska House of Representatives are trying again this year -- for the fourth time since 1999 -- to restore the Peace Corps to the list of allowable out-of-state absences for the dividend, the same as military service, college, receiving medical care and serving in the merchant marine.

And although there is no bill to also add church missionaries to the list, the issue seems to come up whenever lawmakers discuss the Peace Corps.

The Legislature dropped Peace Corps volunteers from the list of allowable absences in 1998, amid wide-ranging debate about who to add, who to leave off, and how long the list should be. Church missionaries have never been included among those eligible for dividends while living out of state, though lawmakers discussed adding them at the same time they debated the bill that removed the Peace Corps.

The issue has come up since then, said Anchorage Republican Rep. Lesil McGuire, who this session is making her third attempt to return the Peace Corps to the eligibility list.

"I can't think of a more important statement to make. We make it for the military," she said, explaining that soldiers and Peace Corps volunteers are working to protect and promote the same goal: democracy.

"If you really look at the Permanent Fund, the decision was made to hand out dividends to every man, woman and child," McGuire said Friday. "So here are Alaskans who meet all the requirements and have the intent to return to the state and we're going to say we don't think the Peace Corps is a valuable use of your time."

In a typical year, about 30 Alaskans are overseas with the Peace Corps, she said.

McGuire's first attempt passed the House without a single "no" vote in 2002, only to sit in the Senate Health, Education and Social Services Committee for two months without a hearing before the Legislature adjourned. Wasilla Republican Lyda Green, committee chair that session, did not return phone calls for this story.

McGuire's second attempt passed the House 33-3 in May 2003 and then died without a committee hearing in the Senate during the 2004 session. That year it died in the Judiciary Committee, chaired by Fairbanks Republican Ralph Seekins.

The senator said Friday he has heard two issues raised by his colleagues reluctant to support the Peace Corps bill. One is the fear that opening the list to one group could attract an even longer roll of groups that want in.

The other is an acknowledgment that not all Alaskans who leave the state on allowable absences truly intend to return -- as required to continue receiving the dividend -- but they claim the intent anyway just to get the check, Seekins said.

"They were sympathetic to the Peace Corps and missionaries, but felt there was a possibility for some abuse," he said.

The first attempt to restore the Peace Corps, in 1999, never even made it to a hearing in House.

The debate has largely focused on the question of whether all volunteers should be treated the same -- whether under the 44-year-old federal program that sends people overseas to work in developing nations or the even older religious tradition that sends congregation members to spread the word.

Lt. Gov. Loren Leman, who raised the issue of missionary eligibility in 1998 when he was in the Senate, said he supports adding Peace Corps volunteers to the list, along with church volunteers who take on out-of-state assignments.

It's easy to define missionary work for established programs, such as the Mormon Church, Leman said. "That is clearly an organized effort." But it's not that easy for less well-defined programs, he said.

"The problem I see ... how do you keep everybody who wants to travel from claiming, 'I am a missionary'?" There has to be some accountability, some way to verify the missionary work is real, Leman said. Perhaps it might work to allow the exemption only for programs administered by an IRS-recognized church organization, he said.

As a senator, Leman was successful in 2002 in convincing the Department of Revenue to amend its dividend eligibility regulations to accommodate Alaskans attending out-of-state religious colleges that lack national accreditation. Not all church-affiliated schools seek accreditation, and the department expanded the regulation to include schools accepted for federal student loan programs as a means of determining their legitimacy.

McGuire's dividend proposal this session, House Bill 127, also would add U.S. Foreign Service diplomats to the list. She had seven co-sponsors as of Friday.

Adding religious volunteer groups to the list, however, creates another set of problems. Several lawmakers in the past have argued that if the list is expanded to include church missionaries, why not add Alaskans who leave the state for volunteer work with Doctors Without Borders, AmeriCorps VISTA and other service and humanitarian organizations?

Senators still worry about opening up the list, said Kodiak Republican Gary Stevens, majority leader of the chamber. "Once you do that, other people want to be included," he said.

Stevens, who voted for McGuire's Peace Corps bill in the House in 2002 before he moved to the Senate in 2003, said he is hopeful of a better outcome for the bill this year.

"I have a feeling the Senate is changing its mind," he said.

McGuire also has concerns about accommodating lawmakers who want to add other volunteers to the dividend program in exchange for allowing her Peace Corps bill to pass.

"I would be amenable to any program that is clearly defined," she said.

Perhaps the most active program is in the Mormon Church, which has 55,000 missionaries stationed worldwide, said Ralph Van Orden, president of the 2,600-member Eagle River and East Anchorage stake, equivalent to a diocese. Of those 55,000, at least 200 are Alaska residents, he said.

"My son is one of them; he's in Las Vegas," doing service work and teaching people about the church, Van Orden said.

Mormon missionaries pay $10,000 to cover their own room-and-board expenses for their 18- to 24-month assignment, while drawing no salary. Most of the volunteers are between 19 and 23, he said.

"They ask if they're able to get their dividend," said Van Orden, who has had to deliver the answer during his four years as president. "I don't think it's kept anyone from going."

The Mormon Church in Alaska has thought about it but never approached the Legislature about changing the allowable-absence list, Van Order said.

"It would be nice for our families," he added.

Most years, the Legislature considers adding to or amending the list of allowable absences for the dividend program. In addition to McGuire's bill, another proposal this session would broaden the list to cover Alaskans who attend to an ill or injured family member receiving medical attention out of state.

House Bill 137, sponsored by Juneau Democratic Rep. Beth Kerttula, would protect Alaskans from losing their dividend if they are injured or fall ill while traveling out of state and cannot return to Alaska because of medical reasons.

State law currently protects Alaskans who have to travel out of state for medical care or accompany a family member traveling out of state, but does not cover Alaskans who fall victim to serious illness or injury while Outside.

"The statute as written can have a pretty weird result," Kerttula said. "I can't figure out why you would treat them differently."

Unless included on the allowable-absence list, Alaskans out of state more than 180 days in a year are ineligible for the dividend.

She introduced the same bill last year in response to a constituent who had to stay out of state to help care for her injured son. Last year, 232 Alaskans received the dividend after traveling Outside for medical care, said Sharon Barton, director of the Permanent Fund Dividend Division at the Department of Revenue.

Daily News reporter Larry Persily can be reached at lpersily@adn.com, or in Juneau at 523-9306.

Who's eligible for PFD and who's not

Among the allowable absences from Alaska under the dividend program are:

Full-time attendance at a college or university.

Full-time vocational or professional training not available in Alaska, as determined by the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education.

Military service.

Service aboard an oceangoing vessel of the U.S. merchant marine.

Receiving continuous medical treatment, as recommended by a physician.

Providing care for a parent, spouse, sibling or child with a life-threatening illness, as recommended by a physician.

Providing care for a terminally ill parent, spouse, sibling or child.

Settling the estate of a deceased parent, spouse, sibling or child.

Serving in Congress or as a congressional staffer.

Spouses and children accompanying an Alaskan who is out of state on an allowable absence.

Absences of more than 180 days from Alaska that are not allowed under the dividend eligibility rules include:

Peace Corps workers.

Church missionaries.

Olympians and other athletes.

AmeriCorps VISTA workers.

Volunteers for humanitarian organizations.

Teachers in exchange programs.

Workers on sabbatical.

Vacations.

For more information on allowable absences, visit the Permanent Fund Dividend Division Web site, www.pfd.state.ak.us/absences/index.aspx.

Source for list of permissible absences: Alaska Statute 43.23.008(a)





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Story Source: Anchorage Daily News

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