Begich and Parnell to lead effort to protect Alaska’s economy from coronavirus fallout

Mark Begich and Sean Parnell.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy today announced the formation of a team tasked with protecting Alaska’s economy and workers from the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, which has sunk the stock market, decimated oil prices and is poised to erase Alaska’s tourism industry.

At the head of the team is former U.S. Sen. Merk Begich, a Democrat who challenged Dunleavy for governor, and former Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell, a Republican. The remaining seats “will be filled by a cross section of Alaska’s economic leaders and former elected officials,” according to the governor’s announcement.

The appointment of Begich marks a significant turn for the Dunleavy administration, which had spent much of its first year mired in bitter partisan fights, to an all-hands-on-deck approach to an existential threat facing the 49th state.

“The Alaska Economic Stabilization Team brings together some of our state’s most experienced leaders in economics, business, and public policy to assess the challenges and recommend decisive policies to protect jobs, hardworking families, and the overall economy,” Dunleavy said in a prepared statement.

Dunleavy’s public messaging so far has been almost exclusively focused on the state’s response to the health concerns of Alaskans. He’s noted the shadow looming over the economy will take a serious response and previewed the team at Monday night’s news conference.

Since losing his reelection in 2014 to U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, Begich has been largely focused on economic development through his consulting firm Northern Compass Group.

“As political rivals who have publicly disagreed on issues, the easy answer when Governor Dunleavy asked for my participation would have been no, but we are facing a global crisis and I believe we all must do our part to protect Alaska’s families, communities, and economy,” Begich said in a prepared statement. “There is already so much uncertainty and strain placed on our businesses—both big and small—we can’t afford for partisanship to prevent us from finding a path forward. Those who have worked with me know that I am not afraid of tough conversations so Alaska businesses can feel confident that I will work to make their needs and voices heard.”

Parnell said he was looking forward to working together.

“In times like these, Alaskans come together to fight for our state and our future,” Parnell said in a prepared statement. “Former U.S. Senator Begich and I are ‘all in’ for Alaska and I pledge to work together with him and others to bring more stability and certainty for Alaskans in the days and months ahead.”

The economic impacts of the virus are already being strongly felt in Alaska, which is highly dependent on oil and its investments through the Alaska Permanent Fund to pay for government. The tourism industry is also bracing for the worst and local businesses in Anchorage are already struggling with a blanket closure on sit-down bars and restaurants intended to slow the spread of the virus.

One business laid off 147 employees so they could immediately access unemployment benefits.

The Legislature is already pushing ahead with efforts to address the impact on workers. The House Labor and Commerce Committee, chaired by Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, announced on Monday that it would be undertaking legislation to ease the rules on unemployment benefits. Several other ideas such as freeing up state capital money have also been floated.

After blocking House leadership’s attempts to speed up legislative work on Monday, minority Republicans lent their support to the rule change once approving a measure that would specifically limit the sped-up work to measures directly related to the virus.

Once approved by the Senate, the Legislature will be able to hold meetings with as little as a day’s notice instead of the typical week-ahead notice as is normally required by the Legislature’s rules.

The House has already waived meeting notifications for a House State Affairs Committee meeting that will serve as an update on the state’s response to coronavirus. That meeting is scheduled for 5 p.m. tonight.

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