The Legislature returned to Juneau on Monday with the main goal of giving the blessing to a not-so-legal attempt to distribute nearly $1 billion in federal coronavirus relief money to communities and small businesses. Most, but not all, wore masks during the uneventful floor sessions and most, but not all, took them off for uneventful committee hearings on the legislation.
Uneventful seemed largely be the word of the day for the public-facing action in Juneau on Monday with legislators keen on keeping a lid on things and business done by Wednesday, the final day of the 121-day session.
The ratification process
To that end, the Legislature is going with a barebones bill to ratify the Legislative Budget and Audit’s approval of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s requests to spend $568 million on payments to local communities, $290 million to small business assistance and up to $100 million in fisheries assistance.
The most important takeaway is that the bill is not an appropriations bill, which means that it’s not easily a battleground for another round of PFD votes or attempts to restore the governor’s vetoes. It seems like most would like one but not at the expense of the other and certainly not at the expense of spending any longer in Juneau.
The House Rules Committee heard and approved the legislation in under 10 minutes while the Senate Finance Committee (where mask compliance was… minimal) spent nearly two hours doing the ol’ bill review, going through the legislation and asking questions.
The takeaway concerns raised in the Senate boil down to these points:
- That without a change in law, the state has no ability to recoup or potentially redistribute money from communities that, for whatever reason, can’t use all their funds to hard-hit areas in need. Even state officials say it’d be a helpful tool to have, but no such legislation has been proposed. The federal CARES Act money must be spent by the end of the calendar year.
- There’s still concern about the equity in these programs between urban and rural Alaska, especially where it relates to the small business program. It’ll be a first-come-first-serve program, raising bad memories of the infamous initial rollout of the federal Payroll Protection Program loans that ran out quickly as large well-positioned companies vacuumed up money before small businesses could get to it. The state’s remedy is to limit the grants to businesses that haven’t accessed federal relief programs that have 50 employees or fewer and reserve a minimum of 20 percent of the funds to communities with 5,000 or fewer employees.
- Informing rural Alaska and other less well-connected areas of the state was a priority for Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, who said a website is fine but not sufficient to inform most Alaska businesses.
- Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, doubted the legality of the ratification process. He noted that the Alaska Supreme Court case on the process was based on cuts, not creating wholly new programs. Ultimately, he said he wouldn’t oppose it.
The state said if the appropriations are approved, the money could go out by the end of the week.
The Senate Finance Committee also heard from several local communities about the bill. It was generally a retread of earlier updates we’ve heard in the several House committee meetings held over the past three weeks, but it still served as an interesting look at how local communities are still in the process of figuring out the needs in the community and how the money can be put to use.
In the city of Soldotna, City Manager Stephanie Queen said they’ve got plenty of expenses as the city reworks the delivery of its services to accommodate the socially distanced new normal. The city has also temporarily lowered its utility rates and is standing up a grant program to help businesses set up online storefronts.
Both bills were advanced to their respective chambers’ floors, which are set to meet this morning at 9 a.m.
Also on the agenda
The Senate doesn’t have much on its calendar, but the House has scheduled other bills to be taken up while in Juneau. On the floor are two bills that nearly made it to the finish line before the end folks left Juneau: The alcohol law rewrite in Senate Bill 52 and the motor fuel tax hike in Senate Bill 110.
Also on today’s agenda is a House State Affairs Committee meeting to hear a vote-by-mail bill in House Bill 150. The Legislature granted Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer the ability to call a by-mail election for the August primary in its emergency declaration legislation, but Meyer announced on Friday that the state will go ahead with an in-person election.
The vote-by-mail bill, a House bill in a House committee, has practically zero chances of passing but will serve as an opportunity for the House to make the case for the change.
Still, House Speaker Bryce Edgmon isn’t too keen on prolonged floor debates. He warned legislators to keep debate on the close-quarters of the House floor to a minimum to help reduce the chances that the virus is spread on the floor. He said if it becomes a problem, they may opt to limit debate.
After making statewide and national headlines for pulling a “Well, actually” about Hitler while decrying legislative health screenings as the beginning of a plot where people who’ve tested positive for COVID-19 “will be rounded up and taken somewhere,” Rep. Ben Carpenter went on the “Sorry if I offended you” apology circuit over the weekend.
He appeared on KSRM Radio Kenai on Monday morning to basically blame the media and everyone else for blowing his comments out of proportion, saying that “I’m going to take steps to remedy this and make sure the truth gets out.”
With a sympathetic host, it was again largely uneventful.
Asked about the session, Carpenter threw cold water on the chances for taking another crack at the PFD. He argued that as much as he’d like to push for one, it’d require an appropriations bill where all sorts of action could happen and warned against increased “special interest” spending (for the record, the big-ticket restoration items are K-12 education funding, school bond debt reimbursement payments to communities and the Alaska Marine Highway System).
Gov. Dunleavy announced Monday night that he’ll be rolling out his plans on Tuesday for a near-complete reopening of Alaska, saying that “The numbers don’t justify us continuing anything but opening up” and that “It’s a free country.”
He said it’s not just about making money, but also dealing with the emotional and mental health of Alaskans who’ve been sidelined for months. He also raised issues of financially troubled hospitals and clinics that have seen revenues plummet as state health mandates pushed people to delay procedures and most hospital visits.
Significantly, Dunleavy said that he fully expects to see a rise in COVID-19 cases because of the reopening but that Alaska’s health care capacity has improved and can now handle a surge.
He said that the course ahead will largely rest on individuals to limit the spread of the virus, and largely couched much of the reopening as a triumph of a free society over the enemy.
“We’re not gonna let the pandemic win,” he said.