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Senate Finance Committee hears new COVID-19 disaster declaration bill ahead of an April 30 deadline

Alaska State Capitol
Alaska State Capitol(N/A)
Published: Apr. 12, 2021 at 3:39 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Legislation before the Alaska Senate Finance Committee would renew and extend a stripped back state COVID-19 disaster declaration until the end of the year, but the bill has not been endorsed by the Senate majority caucus.

Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, said the version of House Bill 76 announced on Monday is merely a committee bill ahead of an April 30 deadline to capture $8 million per month in enhanced federal food aid.

“This is one committee in a process,” Bishop added.

Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, who has opposed extending the COVID-19 disaster declaration, said the bill would be vetted and amended by the Senate majority.

“The caucus needs to support it before it goes anywhere,” he added.

HB76 was passed, largely along caucus lines, by the House of Representatives in late March. It would have renewed and extended the state’s disaster declaration until Sept. 30.

The bill was gutted and replaced with a Senate Finance Committee version of the same legislation on Monday. To become law, it would need to pass through the committee before heading onto the Senate floor and then back to the House so legislators there could approve of the changes made by the Senate.

A central point of debate among legislators has been whether a disaster declaration is now necessary to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Alaska.

The House majority coalition, with 15 Democrats, four independents and two Republicans, has argued it is necessary as it would grant the governor emergency powers if the COVID-19 situation worsens in Alaska.

Most members of the Republican House minority caucus, and some members of the Senate Republican majority caucus, have argued the governor only needs a few limited powers and that a disaster declaration is not needed.

The version of HB76 before the Senate Finance Committee tries to split the difference. It would extend a disaster declaration until Dec. 31, but it would remove some of the governor’s powers that would be granted to him through the Alaska Disaster Act.

The legislation would grant more power to the commissioner of the Department of Health and Social Services. It would also allow the commissioner to declare a public health emergency in the future, separate to a disaster declaration.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy has said he does not need the powers from a disaster declaration and only wants a few specific measures passed by the Legislature.

One common concern among legislators and Dunleavy is that Alaska should keep receiving $8 million per month in enhanced federal food aid for families, which is at risk without a state disaster declaration. HB76 contains a provision to ensure Alaska continues to receive that funding before an April 30 deadline.

The new HB76 also contains provisions that would bar the governor from deciding how to spend any large federal COVID-19 relief packages.

Sitka Republican Sen. Bert Stedman, co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said the Legislature is the appropriating body and that the amendment means legislators would be required to reconvene to decide how to spend any new federal COVID-19 money.

The Legislature was sued last year for using a novel process to disburse federal COVID-19 funds. After that lawsuit was filed, the Legislature hastily reconvened in Juneau to retroactively authorize that process.

Stedman said he doesn’t want to repeat that.

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