With some last-minute fireworks, lawmakers finalize $1 billion in CARES Act spending and adjourn

Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, criticizes Gov. Mike Dunleavy, the members of the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee and legislative leaders for the process to distribute nearly $1 billion in federal CARES Act money. (Screenshot from Gavel Alaska)

The Legislature’s work is done.

The Senate voted today to ratify nearly $1 billion in federal coronavirus relief spending to communities, small businesses and fisheries, officially approving the legally dubious approach taken by the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee last week. The House passed the bill and adjourned sine die on Tuesday.

The Senate’s vote and adjournment brings an end to the session 121 days after legislators first met in Juneau and sets the stage for the state to begin moving the money out to communities as early as Friday of this week. The small business relief program, which will provide small businesses with 50 or fewer employees cash grants ranging from $5,000 to $100,000 is expected to open applications next week.

Last week’s actions spurred a lawsuit that pushed for the Legislature to return to Juneau to hold a more deliberative process on the money. While few were thrilled about the process and many suggested a full appropriations bill would be more effective, Senate Finance Committee chair Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, defended it as both legal and most importantly fast.

“The action that the Legislature took is constitutional, it’s legal, it’s effective and it’s fast,” he said. “These are very unfortunate and difficult times that all our citizens have to suffer through, but we need not needlessly make the suffering continue while we squabble for another month or two or three.”

Stedman had the support of 18 other legislators. Some noted that the initial delays allowed for significant revisions to the programs—the small business program was initially pitched as a loan program—as well as additional information.

Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, said she was initially frustrated to see a $568 million earmarked for local governments while small businesses were slated to get half that figure at $290 million. She said, though, as more information came from the state, local and federal governments about the money she felt better knowing that communities could also stand up business relief programs.

“It is for communities and those communities should be looking at their local economies. They will only be able to thrive—those local governments—if their communities and economies are thriving. They have full ability to administer assistance to small businesses and undergird their economies,” she said. “I would rather my mayor, the city of Palmer Mayor Edna Devries a very good conservative woman, I would rather her figure out where to direct some of those funds rather than a bureaucrat in Juneau.”

But of course, there was one legislator who disagreed with the whole process.

Where Rep. David Eastman filled that role in the House on Tuesday, Eagle River Republican Sen. Lora Reinbold brought the fireworks to the floor session bashing the governor, members of the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee and legislative leadership for what she said was still an unconstitutional process.

Reinbold offered several amendments to the legislation, attempting to inject a full PFD and a supplemental PFD into the bill as well as attempting to end the public health disaster declaration, which is set to expire in November, or remove the spending she felt was unconstitutional.

“This bill is a false, inappropriate attempt to cure any unconstitutional defects,” she said. “Don’t fool yourselves, this is not going to fix the unconstitutional defects here.”

Reinbold has railed against the state’s public health mandates, downplayed the seriousness of COVID-19 and compared the wearing of masks to religious face coverings. She reportedly refused to undergo health screenings while entering the building and unlike every other legislator and legislative staff didn’t wear a mask during the floor session.

She accused Gov. Mike Dunleavy of “usurping of the legislative authority,” of running the state in a “quasi-martial-law-like manner” and not returning her calls.

She was frequently called out of order during the debate this morning, at one point demanding to know “who made the decision that this was an appropriation bill or not.” She frequently mixed in attacks on Dunleavy, a Republican, for his public health mandates.

The decision to not pass a new appropriation bill allowed the Legislature to sidestep big political issues, such as a renewed PFD fight or the restoration of hundreds of millions of dollars in vetoes just as the political campaign season can get underway. Even ardent PFD defenders like Rep. Ben Carpenter, who did wear a mask and undergo health screenings despite likening the health mandates to the Holocaust, said in a radio appearance on Monday that he would rather not bring it up because it would be a vehicle to replace vetoes.

Sen. Stedman also said that the reality is any such debate—which would put the size of cash payments to communities into the hands of the Legislature—would realistically take weeks or months, noting that the law already allows the governor to push ahead with spending as long as he abides a 45-day waiting period.

“If the course were to be altered and the appropriation process were to be taken, it would take us months and sometimes years to come to agreement,” he said. “We can look at school funding, community assistance. Those are multiple year discussions in this building. Not days, not weeks and not even months.”

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