The Legislature’s response to COVID-19 and its hopes of bringing as swift end to the session hit a setback Wednesday night when House minority Republicans, wanting to hold onto leverage for a PFD fight that may never come, blocked full funding the supplemental budget.
The budget largely covers the unexpected costs in the current year’s budget—including money to keep Medicaid and the Pioneer Homes running through July 1, restore some service to the Alaska Marine Highways and $33.5 million in emergency funding to respond to COVID-19—but also sought to settle typical end-of-session battles over the Constitutional Budget Reserve.
“If I was to vote yes on this bill, I would not be upholding my duty to the people in my district who I said I would do all I can to support a full permanent fund dividend, I will do all I can to support a budget cap, will do all I can to support budget reductions, I will do all I can to support a 20-week abortion bill,” said Rep. Mark Neuman, a Big Lake Republican who was among the 10 Republicans who voted against funding the budget.
Neuman was joined by Reps. Carpenter, Eastman, Gillis, Merrick, Rauscher, Sullivan-Leonard, Tilton and Vance in blocking the measure, which would have also settled the reverse sweep issue that prevents critical funds like the Power Cost Equalization fund and the state vaccine program from being depleted.
But it’s not all grim news for the 49th State’s response to the COVID-19.
Moments after coming up two votes short of the 30 needed to fully fund the state budget, the House Rules Committee took up and advanced emergency legislation to ease the access unemployment benefits as thousands of Alaskans find themselves without work due to closures of bars and restaurants to sit-in dining.
The legislation was introduced earlier in the day by the House Labor and Commerce Committee in close collaboration with the Senate and the Dunleavy administration.
It would expand access to unemployment benefits in cases where an employee or employer are limiting hours due to providing care to others, preventing the spread of COVID-19 or preventing or limiting the economic loss or harm. While the $370 per week benefit would be unchanged, it would greatly expand support for dependents by tripling the support to $75 per week and by lifting the overall cap.
The increased benefits for dependents would apply to all beneficiaries of the unemployment program, not just people out of work due to COVID-19. The state says this is because it would amount to illegal discrimination if they were to parcel out benefits like this.
The program’s expansion would automatically expire in April 2021, giving the Legislature the opportunity to either expand the program, if needed, or end it early.
State officials said they are already bracing for a sharp increase in unemployment applications—which can be filed online at my.alaska.gov—in the coming weeks, noting that they’ve already pulled in staff from other departments to help process applications.
The state also noted that the unemployment fund has surplus money in it and would be able to fund several months of sharply increased expenditures without undermining the account.
Rep. Chuck Kopp, the House Rules Committee chairman, said the legislation shows the Legislature is serious about responding to the economic hardships facing Alaskans.
“Alaskans are facing unimaginable economic hardship right now,” he said. “The Legislature can, and will, provide economic relief where we can. I’m sure this is not the last action we will take.”
The legislation is scheduled to arrive on the House Floor today. Unlike the CBR motion, the legislation needs only a majority in both chambers to pass but efforts to waive rules for its speedy passage could potentially hit roadblocks with the obstinate minority Republicans.
As for the outlook on the partially funded budget, the minority Republicans’ decision to hold onto their leverage will leave $90 million of the $360 million budget without sufficient funding. It’s unclear what, if anything, could be funded the $250 million in funding that is available.
Several House members, including some members from the minority Republicans, pleaded with the 10 minority Republicans to support the measure. The threat Alaska faces is unprecedented, they said, and require an unprecedented response to ensure the Legislature can quickly and tidily wrap up the legislative session.
Rep. Jennifer Johnston, the Anchorage Republican who co-chairs the House Finance Committee, apologized to legislators for the difficult place they were in but said everything has changed.
“Folks, we don’t have time. We don’t have time for our wants and our needs. We don’t have time as individual legislators to do the good work that we hoped to do,” she said. “We lost that time. We only have time for the state of Alaska at this time.”
The risk that COVID-19 could hit the Legislature has also been a strong, but legislators said that only strengthens the case to act now.
“The funding that’s been added to this bill is absolutely essential for combating COVID-19. Is it enough? Is it everything we’re going to do to combat this virus? Absolutely not, but we have to do it,” said Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage. “We have to recognize that by tomorrow one of us could be testing positive for this virus and we no longer have the luxury of extended debates on how we respond.”
In the end, minority Republican Reps. Prax, Johnson, Pruitt, Shaw and Talerico joined all members of the bipartisan coalition in funding the bill. The House could still hold a re-vote on the funding measure, send it to a time-consuming conference committee to hash out the differences or forward the bill with partial funding to Gov. Dunleavy.
The Senate passed both the bill and its full funding earlier in the day on a 16-0 vote. Senate leadership released the following list of what $23.5 million in COVID-19 funding and $10 million in grants to communities would cover:
- $8.5 million in grants to municipalities for COVID-19-related commercial passenger vessel operations;
- $5.5 million for medical and protective equipment, including testing supplies;
- $3.5 million for transportation to housing for medical assistance;
- $2.5 million for housing individuals under quarantine;
- $1.5 million for the state epidemiology lab for IT systems related to testing;
- $1.5 million for personnel including lab, support, emergency operations, and 24-hour facility staff; and
- $500,000 for public distribution of vital health recommendations and information.
The bill also covers other unexpected costs in the current year’s budget. Those programs, as outlined by Senate leadership, is as follows:
- $142 million in state funds and $160 million in federal funds for Medicaid services, including $8.3 million to restore the Adult Preventive Dental Program;
- $110.5 million for wildland firefighting costs incurred last summer and fall;
- $8.6 million to restore Adult Public Assistance to ensure payments for low-income Alaskans;
- $7.1 million for the Alaska Marine Highway System to ensure a stable schedule for the spring and summer of this year;
- $6.7 million for the Department of Public Safety to address a shortfall within the Alaska State Troopers and Alaska Wildlife Troopers due to a lower than expected vacancy rate;
- $6 million to help the Alaska Psychiatric Institute increase its capacity; and
- $3 million to address the severe damage caused in Anchorage, Kenai, and Mat-Su by the December 2018 earthquake.