Legislature, governor spar over extending Alaska’s COVID-19 disaster declaration, but remote special session could be possible

The Alaska State Capitol
The Alaska State Capitol(KTUU)
Published: Nov. 5, 2020 at 7:31 PM AKST
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Alaska’s COVID-19 public health emergency declaration is set to expire in 10 days, and there is disagreement over how it should be extended. The governor’s office and the Legislature’s presiding officers have exchanged letters, calling on the other to take the lead on what happens next.

The Legislature could call itself into a special session to extend the declaration that was already extended through Senate Bill 241, but Senate President Cathy Giessel and House Speaker Bryce Edgmon say they don’t have the 40 votes necessary to do that.

Giessel and Edgmon wrote to the governor on Monday, asking for help.

“As presiding officers, we believe the only way to get a special session convened is with your administration taking assertive action and appealing to the smaller group of legislators who have, in the past two years, consistently looked to you for direction,” the letter reads. “Put more succinctly, the combined numbers of both the Senate and House falls short of the two-thirds threshold of 40 of the 60 members required by the Alaska Constitution to call the Legislature into session.”

Ben Stevens, the governor’s chief of staff, wrote to Giessel and Edgmon last Friday, asking if a formal poll of legislators had been held and for the governor’s office to be informed of the outcome.

Giessel said on Thursday that a formal poll of the Senate hadn’t been conducted but she knew through informal conversations with senators that the 40-vote threshold to hold a special session could not be met.

There are advantages for the governor to call a special session himself, Giessel said. “In the process of calling that session, he could actually lay before us a bill that would cover the extension elements that he wished included,” she added.

Some legislators are publicly opposed to extending the declaration.

Eagle River Republican Sen. Lora Reinbold said tough COVID-19 restrictions have hurt the economy and Alaskans' mental health. She also said that the governor’s mandates have violated Alaskans' Constitutional rights.

“There’s separation of powers issues, there’s First Amendment rights issues that are being violated,” she said. “There are many, many concerns with due process in delaying trials.”

Reinbold said she could support a “targeted approach” that protects Alaska’s most vulnerable people, but she wants the broader declaration to end immediately.

The governor’s office said last week that a decision on the disaster declaration would be made this week.

“We believe that the tools we have available to us, and still have available to us, are going to help us manage the virus,” the governor said last Wednesday. “We’ll be able to pull the trigger and have a conversation going into next week."

The governor’s office says one of the concerns over holding a brief special session in Juneau is the risk of spreading COVID-19. Legislators would meet in-person and then travel back home, potentially bringing the virus with them.

In March, the Senate passed a resolution that approved for the Legislature to meet and vote remotely during the pandemic. The House didn’t pass the same resolution as it had already adjourned.

Giessel said despite that resolution failing to pass that the Legislature already has the tools and infrastructure in place to hold a session remotely during the pandemic. Several legislative information offices across Alaska have been fitted with cameras that would allow legislators to call in and vote from their home communities.

Giessel said the presiding officers could meet in-person in Juneau and then gavel into a special session. Legislators standing by remotely across Alaska could then immediately vote to waive uniform rules that require meeting and voting in-person.

There would be a brief time when the Legislature was violating its own rules, but Giessel said a court would likely allow that due to the extenuating circumstances caused by COVID-19.

Twenty-five other state legislatures across the country have already implemented remote meeting and voting procedures during the pandemic.

The governor could also simply issue another disaster declaration when the existing one expires.

The governor’s office said it believes Alaska is in a new stage of the COVID-19 pandemic than in March when the first declaration was issued. The governor’s office believes it could survive a challenge in court if one was made.

One downside of the governor issuing a second declaration is that it would only last 30 days under Alaska statute, meaning the Legislature would need to extend that second disaster declaration in mid December.

Giessel asked, “Are we going to have to urgently go to Juneau on Dec. 16? That’s an even higher bar than in November.”

In late-October, the Alaska Municipal League joined health care professionals from across Alaska in calling for the disaster declaration to be extended, saying that letting it expire would cause significant challenges.

Jared Kosin, the president and CEO of the Alaska State Hospitals and Nursing Homes Association, said that the stress of waiting to see what would happen next isn’t helping either.

“We don’t understand why it wouldn’t be extended, we don’t see any downsides to it,” Kosin said while sighing. “We don’t understand what the considerations are at this point.”

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