The Alaska Legislature formed a special committee on Tuesday to come up with contingency plans to ensure the Legislature can get its necessary work done if the novel coronavirus arrives in the state’s capital city.
According to a report by KTOO, the potential plans being considered range from closing the state capitol building to the public, conducting votes by phone or ending the session early.
“The goal is to be prepared to respond should the coronavirus arrive here in Alaska and in Juneau particularly,” Alaska Legislative Council chair Sen. Gary Stevens told KTOO. “We’ve got to pass a budget. That’s the one requirement in the constitution. And the second requirement is—or not necessarily a requirement, but a responsibility—is to make sure that we confirm the governor’s appointments or not.”
The committee includes Sens. Stevens, Cathy Giessel, John Coghill and Tom Begich as well as Reps. Bryce Edgmon, Chuck Kopp and Lance Pruitt. The group is set to meet in private today with following meetings expected to be public.
Despite last year’s gridlock, the Legislature is currently ahead of pace compared to a regular session. The House passed the operating budget on Day 43 of the 90-day legislative session, the earliest in recent memory. The bill is currently in the Senate, which has already been working on the budget.
The other critical piece of legislation is the state supplemental budget, House Bill 234, that contains funding to close the gaps in the current year’s budget. It contains $143 million in state funding to make up for unachievable cuts made last year to Medicaid ($120 million), Alaska Pioneer Homes ($1 million), adult public assistance ($8.6 million), adult dental ($8.2 million) and the Alaska Psychiatric Institute ($6 million).
The legislation would also be the fastest vehicle for the Legislature to deliver the $4 million in state funding and $9 million in federal funding that Gov. Mike Dunleavy requested for additional public health positions to handle coronavirus preparation.
The administration has restricted spending, hiring and out-of-state travel this week, not directly because of concerns about coronavirus infections but out of concern about what coronavirus panic has done to the state’s finances. The Alaska Permanent Fund has seen its annual gains erased by market panic in the last few weeks and oil prices have plummeted to $34.43 per barrel as of Monday amid a new price war.
The administration has also halted any non-essential purchasing for the rest of the year, according to an internal email provided to The Midnight Sun.
“Due to recent volatility in the global oil markets and the critical financial situation the state faces … we are implementing a non-essential purchasing restriction,” explained the email from the Office of Management and Budget Director Neil Steininger.
It requires any spending above $25,000 to go through the Office of Management and Budget director and any spending below that but above $10,000 will need to be approved by the commissioner.