Coronavirus relief package passes through Alaska Legislature

Published: Mar. 29, 2020 at 12:44 AM AKDT
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The Alaska Legislature has passed a coronavirus relief package. The legislation extends the governor’s 30-day coronavirus disaster declaration until Nov. 15, if needed.

Senate Bill 241 was also used to pass measures supported by members across the aisle to ease the fiscal pain expected to be felt by many Alaskans.

The legislation would prevent utilities from disconnecting service when a user cannot pay due to financial hardship. Eviction of renters and foreclosures are also prevented due to financial hardship until June 30.

A statement detailing financial hardship by tenants must be made under penalty of perjury to avoid evictions. The financial hardship can only be due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Landlords can still evict tenants if they are “bad actors” during the emergency, Rep. Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage, explained to a special legislative committee.

The Commerce Department is also enabled to provide grants to small businesses to prevent bankruptcy or layoffs. Telemedicine services are also expanded. Wills can be witnessed by videoconference.

The bill also creates an expedited path to allow certification for out-of-state licensed professionals to help address the public health emergency.

Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink would be able to issue standing orders during the public health emergency and the governor is authorized to spend $10 million from the state disaster relief fund.

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Andy Josephson successfully introduced an amendment that allows first responders to claim workers compensation if they contract COVID-19, presuming that it was contracted while they were working.

The legislation, requested by the governor, also allows shareholder meetings to be conducted electronically and extends the Permanent Fund dividend application period by a month until April 30.

The omnibus bill also sets up a process where certain 2020 Alaska elections can be conducted by mail.

The provisions in the bill are temporary and only operate while a public health emergency for COVID-19 remains in effect, Kopp said.

On the Senate floor, the provisions dealing with potential changes to Alaska elections were the most controversial.

The legislation allows for Lieutenant Governor Kevin Meyer to conduct a statewide primary election in August or special election by mail after consultation with the Department of Health and Social Services commissioner.

Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, unsuccessfully introduced amendments that would have set up roadside ballot deposit boxes and for voters to be able to sign a vote-by-mail ballot without a witness.

Begich argued that processes needed to be implemented to ensure a vote-by-mail election could be conducted if the coronavirus public health emergency continues. “Simply saying there should be an election by mail, doesn’t mean there will be a vote by mail,” Begich said on Tuesday.

Members of the Senate majority stood, saying that the integrity of Alaska’s elections could be put at risk by further loosening how voters cast ballots by mail. “It opens the door, even by a small crack, to fraud,” said Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer.

On Wednesday, during a reconsideration vote for the legislation, Begich urged passage of the bill.

A final version of the bill passed through both the House and Senate early Sunday morning.

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