As the Legislature grapples with coronavirus, Monday revealed a deep division between legislators who see sticking around as their duty to Alaskans—especially if it means passing measures to ease the pandemic’s impacts on Alaska’s economy and workers—and those who want to do the minimum and head home.
Leadership in the Alaska House sought to waive the Legislature’s meeting notification rules in order to be able to swiftly respond to coronavirus and its looming economic impact on the state of Alaska. They say it’s their duty to stick around and help Alaskans and Alaska businesses cope with a crisis that’s growing by the hour.
The chamber sought to vote on suspending rules that require meetings and bill hearings be notified to the public five days in advance. Suspending the rule, which would also require the support of the Senate, would allow committees to hold meetings with as little as a day’s notice.
“We are not talking about going under the 24-hour rule in order to advance personal legislation agendas. This is about ensuring that Alaskans who are already being financially impacted by the COVID-19 response will be protected,” said Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage. “This will help us get our budget passed in a quick and timely manner, but there are other things that we should and must do to make sure Alaskans are held harmless. It’s in times of crisis that leaders need to step up to the plate.”
House minority Republicans, for their part, blocked the measure and, instead, called on the Legislature to quickly pass the budget—the Legislature’s lone constitutional duty—and head home for their own safety. Needing 27 votes to pass, the measure was bumped to Tuesday.
The minority Republicans offered a variety of reasons for opposition, worried that the bipartisan coalition would use the loosened rules to sneak through their own pet bills, that it would lock out public input and that they were worried about their own safety.
“I think that we have to remember sometimes just doing something because we feel we need to be doing something doesn’t always show that we’re being wise or responsive,” said Rep. DeLena Johnson, R-Palmer. “If we act in haste, and waive meeting requirements, that’s how good governments go down the wrong direction.”
The Legislature voted last week to close its doors to the public to help defend against coronavirus. It has also put into place plans in case a member of the Legislature or an employee is affected by the virus.
Rep. David Eastman, a Wasilla Republican who’s been prepping with hauls of toilet paper and masks, argued that simply by meeting the Legislature was already breaking the federal government’s recommendations against large meetings.
“Should a member of this body become gravely ill, I think we will all look back on today and why we did not do something different,” he said.
Anchorage Republican Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux suggested they just pass a budget, “get out of Dodge” and recess the session until another time.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who’s been closely aligned with the minority Republicans, has been focused primarily on the state’s response to the virus and said that issues relating to business and the economy would come second. He said discussions about it will happen, but later.
Members of the bipartisan majority coalition were firm that it’s their duty to help Alaskans through this crisis. Several were particularly concerned about what the fallout will mean for the tourism industry as well as food service workers who will see severely reduced hours as restaurants pull back.
Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, said the precise impacts and the response are unknown but said it’s important for the Legislature to be ready to respond quickly to whatever comes through.
“It’s not so much about stuff on the deck right now, it’s not the personal legislation. It’s not why I think this resolution is particularly pertinent. It’s the stuff that will, by economic and other necessity, that will be coming forward. It’s pretty clear at this point there’s going to be a shadow of a tourism sector in 2020 if there’s one at all,” he said. “What are we as the Legislature going to do as a response to that? Doing nothing is not an option. It’s simply irresponsible to allow one of the largest private sectors in Alaska to evaporate and think that we as legislators can’t do anything. … We are going to have to do something.”
At a news conference held midday as it became clear that minority Republicans would block the measure, the House leadership said there are several ways that the state could respond to help individuals and businesses impacted by the virus. One idea was freeing up state capital and loans to help businesses another would be to ease the requirements to receive unemployment benefits.
While the minority Republicans refused to ease legislative business, they ultimately didn’t object to Kreiss-Tomkins’ request to waive the rules so the House State Affairs Committee could hold an informational meeting on coronavirus on Tuesday.
He had to promise, though, that no legislation would be brought up at the meeting.
House Bipartisan Coalition ideas
The House Bipartisan Coalition released a list of ideas to be considered in the coming days and weeks to help the Alaska economy. Here’s the list:
- issuance of state-backed bridge loans financed by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority or other state corporations;
- opening, or making preparations to open, temporary homeless shelters or quarantine sites;
- allowing the Department of Labor and Workforce Development to provide additional emergency assistance no wait time for unemployment benefits, and classifying all quarantined individuals as unemployed;
- ensuring that everyone who needs to be tested or treated for COVID-19 will not be forced to pay out-of-pocket for their treatment;
- restricting access to all state buildings to protect our state workers and all Alaskans, and taking additional measures to limit large gatherings statewide;
- establishing telework mandates for state workers;
- enacting travel restrictions that will limit the number of people arriving in Alaska from COVID-19 hotspots;
- identifying ways to protect rural Alaska because of the lack of adequate food supplies and limited health facilities;
- any other ideas that emerge to stimulate our struggling economy or to protect the public health of Alaskans.