Division continues over pandemic powers

House and Senate leaders have continued on divergent paths to address gaps left in the state’s pandemic response when the official public health emergency declaration expired last month.

The House Finance Committee passed House Bill 76 to extend the emergency declaration March 22, readying it for a floor vote before that would likely send it to the Senate.

However, the governor no longer supports the legislation that his office submitted just before the session. Dunleavy has said he believes his administration can adequately manage public health concerns without a formal declaration. Doing so is one step towards returning to a state of normalcy, according to the governor.

House majority coalition leaders sent a letter to Dunleavy March 17 outlining their rationale for sticking with HB 76 despite his change in approach.

They emphasized that numerous health care and social service organizations across the state have stressed the importance of having an active declaration while unemployment remains high and health care and business practices are altered because of the pandemic.

House Speaker Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, said after the House Finance passed HB 76 that it provides the resources needed to help end the pandemic in Alaska.

“While there has been an active disinformation campaign about what this bill does, the measures it contains are not at all controversial. We will not allow opportunist politics to get in the way of good policy,” Stutes said in a coalition statement.

Numerous Republicans in both chambers argue a declaration is unnecessary as daily statewide COVID-19 case counts have stabilized at lower levels and vaccines are now available to all adults. Declaring a disaster again will just facilitate the continuation of government restrictions that have been overly burdensome for months, they contend.

Illustrating that, HB 76 moved out of the Finance Committee on a 6-5 vote.

House leaders noted to Dunleavy in their letter that a disaster declaration does not require any of the business restrictions such as “hunker down orders” that many have long opposed.

Dunleavy responded March 18 writing to Stutes that after a thorough analysis of what authorities his administration needs to manage the public health response, administration officials concluded they require the continued ability to distribute vaccines and COVID-19 treatments; limited immunity for officials conducting the state’s public health response; a continuation of waivers allowing for enhanced telehealth services; and authority to access available federal funding.

In the meantime the Department of Health and Social Services has continued to operate as if the statutes and regulations waived and suspended during the formal emergency still are, a position that has caused some confusion among providers, according to Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association officials.

Representatives from the Food Bank of Alaska and other charitable organizations have said the state needs to pass some sort of authority by March 31 to continue accepting $8 million per month in boosted federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, funds, which equates to an additional 2.2 million meals per month that can be distributed across the state, according to Food Bank of Alaska officials.

Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, said in a March 19 press briefing that he believes it’s pointless for the House to pass a bill the governor has no intention of signing.

“There’s no doubt the communities of Alaska are worn out feeling like we’re in an emergency declaration stage,” Micciche said.

“If the fit-for-purpose tools are available without a declaration that’s the way we want to go in the Senate and that’s the way the governor wants to go.”

Senate Republicans have said for weeks they have drafted legislation with the tools to address the administration’s requests without the political hang-up of actually renewing the public health emergency declaration; Micciche called it a “disaster declaration light,” but they have yet to formally submit the bill.

He also said Senate leaders are “not allowing populous politics to get in the way of managing this pandemic.”

Senate Rules chair Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said he believes House leaders “will come along once they realize what the governor’s concerns are.”

Little interest in bonds

Micciche also said March 19 that he sees little need for a primary piece of Dunleavy’s economic recovery plan for the state.

The Senate President said the $356 million general obligation construction bond package largely seeks to fast-fund the state’s minor share for road and airport projects funded at upwards of 90 percent with federal dollars that are already in the state’s long-term transportation plans.

Bond funding for construction projects typically takes years to “hit the streets” with a tangible economic impact and Micciche noted the state is about to get another roughly $1.5 billion from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.

Taking on debt when the state is about to have a cash infusion is an inefficient way to manage funds, he said.

“There’s no doubt that we have infrastructure needs in this state but if there is another billion-and-a-half dollars coming to our state from Congress we can put that money to work,” Micciche said.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

03/24/2021 - 9:36am