Senate Republicans near agreement on emergency powers

Senate Republican leaders have ultimately agreed to renew the state’s COVID-19 disaster declaration with an option for the administration to scale it back to only the targeted powers and flexibilities Gov. Mike Dunleavy and public health officials have said are needed.

The Senate Republicans’ version of House Bill 76 would actually extend the end date of the official disaster declaration from Sept. 30, which the House approved, to Dec. 31 despite the continued instance by Senate President Peter Micchiche, R-Soldotna, that reviving the declaration when the governor doesn’t want it is largely a political game.

Staff for Finance Committee co-chair Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, said during an April 12 hearing when the committee’s changes to disaster legislation were released that the end date was moved back to align with indications from President Joe Biden that the federal emergency declaration will be in place through the end of the year.

Aligning the dates allows the Dunleavy administration to accept additional monthly Federal Emergency Management Administration and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, funds without requiring subsequent legislative action.

Micciche said in an April 9 press briefing that HB 76 will be passed in some form to ensure the state gets the $8 million per month in boosted food assistance and other FEMA funding.

“We’re going to take our time on (HB 76),” Micciche said, adding that he doesn’t believe the official declaration is necessary and prior indications from state Health Department leaders that the state needed to extend the declaration by April 1 and April 15 in order to get those funds for this month might have been inaccurate. He said administration officials now believe the state has until April 30 to act.

Legislative leaders had previously been at odds over the necessity of a full disaster declaration and the disagreement had hampered the progress of the bill most lawmakers say is needed in some form.

“There’ll be a Senate position, a House position and hopefully they align,” Micciche said of the disaster legislation.

Multiple Senate Republicans have indicated a desire to extend the declaration while others in the caucus — most vocally Eagle River Republican Sen. Lora Reinbold — insist it is an unnecessary ceding of power to the administration.

House majority coalition members have been firm in their stance that the official declaration is ostensibly an insurance policy against the unknown that gives the administration the ability to respond quickly if the state’s public health system encounters major problems in managing the pandemic over the coming months, echoing the beliefs of the state’s largest health care organizations and providers.

Dunleavy has said since it expired in mid-February that he believes renewing the full declaration would send the wrong signal to Alaskans as well as potential visitors regarding the trajectory of the pandemic in the state. His administration wants only limited powers to support COVID-19 vaccine and treatment distribution; allow for expedited procurement processes; and continued telehealth flexibilities in addition to the emergency funding authority.

To that end, Senate Republicans added a provision to HB 76 that would give Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum the power to declare a public health emergency to make the state eligible for the additional federal aid as well as continue Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services waivers.

Crum could enact a public health emergency after Dunleavy issues a proclamation ending the full disaster declaration — seemingly an attempt to satisfy both House leaders and the governor.

“As a department we do not believe the facts and science related to COVID-19 currently support a disaster declaration,” Crum said in the April 12 hearing.

The “targeted, prescribed responses” contained in the public health emergency provision are what the administration wants, he said, while adding that additional language regarding vaccine and treatment distribution and procurement requirements would be helpful for DHSS officials.

The bill also lifts the existing cap on school district funds that limits districts to holding no more than 10 percent of their annual budgets in reserve, which Micciche has said is important to give districts the time to carefully spend and manage open-ended federal COVID-19 aid over several years.

As for dealing with the broader issue of federal pandemic aid, the new iteration of HB 76 ostensibly suspends the revised program legislation, or RPL, process for current and future COVID-19 or economic recovery funds in language prioritized by Finance co-chair Sen. Bert Stedman.

Stedman, a Sitka Republican, noted the state is preparing to accept another billion-plus dollars in American Rescue Plan funds and stressed lawmakers’ collective responsibility to manage the money.

“The concern is there are a significant number of legislators that don’t want to take their obligation seriously enough and to show up in Juneau. We saw that last summer and last fall,” Stedman said in reference to how the roughly $1.2 billion in CARES Act funding the state received was handled.

The RPL process allows the administration to amend the state budget out-of-session 45 days after notifying the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee of a change, as long as the committee doesn’t outright reject the proposal.

A lawsuit filed last spring alleging the Legislature had shirked its responsibility to appropriate the large sums of CARES money eventually compelled lawmakers back to Juneau for a day to approve the administration’s RPL requests.

While many legislators wanted to call a special session to deal with the federal aid, not enough did in a campaign year to reach the two-thirds majority needed to convene and Dunleavy opted against calling them back as well.

According to Stedman, the new language in HB 76 that prohibits the administration from using the RPL process on most any federal aid that comes Alaska’s way this year should provide “ample encouragement for the executive branch to call the Legislature to special session to deal with the billions of dollars that are on the table,” he said.

Bethel Sen. Lyman Hoffman, the only Democrat in the Senate majority, urged House lawmakers to pass a provision allowing the Legislature to hold remote meetings as the Senate has done, which he said would help alleviate the issue.

Bishop called for further amendments to HB 76 but further hearings on the bill have not been scheduled as of late April 13.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

04/14/2021 - 9:54am