House passes COVID-19 emergency bill with three-month pause to evictions

The Alaska Capitol Building. (Photo by Alaska Senate Majority/Flickr)

The Alaska House passed its version of a bill to extend the COVID-19 public health emergency, including a three-month pause to evictions and utility shut-offs when people can’t pay due COVID-19.

The fast-moving Senate Bill 241 is required to extend Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s 30-day emergency declaration, delivering state officials several additional powers to combat the most pressing impacts of COVID-19.

“Extending the disaster declaration gives those on the front lines increased ability to respond to this pandemic and allows Alaskans to conduct business while adhering to hunker down mandates,” said Rep. Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage, in a prepared statement. “Our duty as a Legislature is to protect Alaskans to the best of our abilities, and we will continue working to find ways to lift their burdens in this difficult time.”

The measure expands the power for the state’s chief medical officer to issue standing orders, extends the deadline for the PFD application through the end of April, extends the state tax filing deadline to July, allows the state to institute cleaning policies for grocery stores and other essential high-traffic stores, loosens professional licensing so it’s easier for out-of-state health workers to help in Alaska and authorizes up to $10 million in spending from the state’s disaster relief fund.

The bill requires the governor submit monthly spending reports to the Legislature as part of oversight.

If public health is a concern in the fall, the lieutenant governor will have the power to conduct by-mail elections for the primary and special elections (like a recall). Though the emergency declaration would include the general election, it is not covered in the by-mail provisions.

Still, the measure goes several steps further than the measure passed by the Senate earlier this week.

The House version extends the emergency through Nov. 15 instead of September. It offers relief from evictions where the Senate had planned on adding such a measure to an economic relief bill, which was first released on Thursday by the Senate Finance Committee. And where Senate Republicans balked at adding any additional sideboards to the by-mail election provisions, the House calls on the Division of Elections to make a concerted effort to notify the public of any changes to this year’s voting.

The measure also extends worker’s compensation benefits to first responders—nurses, doctors, paramedics, fire fighters and police—who can prove they contracted COVID-19 while in the line of duty.

The moratorium on evictions and utility shutoffs garnered much of the debate during Thursday’s floor session as minority Republicans worried about the impact on what House Minority Leader Lance Pruitt called “mom and pop landlords.”

Pruitt offered an amendment that would reduce the eviction protection from the duration of the public health emergency declaration to the end of June. The underlying change had been brought forward by Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage, and several other majority members. She agreed that November was likely too long for the extension and agreed with the need to shorten it.

“It’s a little bit of short of what I would like but in the interest of compromise and trying to recognize the diversity of opinions in the room, I’m happy to accept it,” she said.

Rep. David Eastman, clad in a medical face mask and goggles, still opposed the eviction relief measure by arguing that people might take advantage of the COVID-19 emergency.

Both changes were accepted. The measure doesn’t force landlords to forgive renters’ for failing to pay their rent and still allows people to be evicted for illegal behavior or other breaches of the contract. (Evictions are on hold currently anyways as the Alaska Court System has put a hold on all eviction hearings.)

The bill now returns to the Senate for concurrence.

Other news

  • The Senate Finance Committee rolled out its economic impact bill on Thursday, which is largely serving as a vehicle for the federal government stimulus. At least as of Thursday morning, there was still quite a bit of uncertainty about just what the federal bill would contain for Alaska and how, exactly, Alaska could put those funds to work. The topline is that Alaska is in line for at least $1.25 billion in funding and several other organizations, including tribes, are in line for some amount of additional funding.
  • AIDEA is moving ahead with an emergency plan to shift $35 million into the Arctic Infrastructure Development Fund. The group held some public testimony on Thursday before abruptly cutting it off amid the usual conference call fracas. Suffice it to say, folks are not the least bit pleased that the agency looks like it’s using the COVID-19 emergency to sneak this by the Legislature. Read more from Dermot Cole here: AIDEA evades Legislature, aims to use health crisis to pump $35 million into Ambler Road
  • Mike Dunleavy signed into law HB 308 to expand and ease access to the state’s unemployment benefit system. Meanwhile, he still has not sent workers home or implemented a statewide shelter-in-place order. Rural legislators are pleading with the governor to, at the very least, give rural communities the power to enforce their own bans. In 1918, villages with bans to outsiders enforced it with rifles.
  • Alaska reported 10 additional cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, bringing the state total to 69 confirmed cases. The count includes “numerous” health care workers are among the count.
  • The conference committee on the operating budget continues to hammer out the differences in the budget. The Legislature is hoping to wrap up work today, but it’s looking unlikely especially with work on the economic stimulus bill still ongoing.

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