Divided over covid, Legislature can’t call itself back into special session to deal with covid

This transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S. Virus particles are shown emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. The spikes on the outer edge of the virus particles give coronaviruses their name, crown-like. Credit: NIAID-RML.

The Alaska Legislature does not have the 40 votes needed to call itself into a special session to extend the governor’s covid-19 disaster declaration, its presiding officers told Gov. Mike Dunleavy in a letter on Monday afternoon.

The governor had on Friday asked leadership about the prospects of the Legislature calling itself back as he weighs an extension of the deadline, which is currently set to expire on Nov. 15. In the letter, House Speaker Bryce Edgmon and Senate President Cathy Giessel request the governor to call the special session in order to keep the topics limited to covid-19.

“There is interest in extending the emergency declaration as expressed by members over the last two weeks,” the two wrote. “However, it is clear after months of what appeared to be a lack of interest in convening the Legislature by your administration, the sudden nature of your request finds many legislators in a difficult position, given the immediate timeline involved and with COVID-19 cases spiking across the state.”

It requires 40 votes for the 60-member Legislature to call itself back into session but such a session could be opened to several other non-related topics. A special session called by the governor can be limited to a specific set of issues.

The issue appears to rest with the minority of far-right legislators who are closely aligned with Dunleavy and doubtful over the seriousness of the covid-19 pandemic whether the government should be involved in reducing its toll on human life. Giessel and Edgmon called on Dunleavy to work with them if he’s not willing to call his own special session.

“As presiding officers, we believe the only way to get a special session convened is with your administration taking assertive action and appealing to the smaller group of legislators who have, in the past two years, consistently looked to you for direction,” they write. “Put more succinctly, the combined numbers of both the Senate and House falls short of the two-thirds threshold of 40 of the 60 members required by the Alaska Constitution to call the Legislature into session. … If you are unwilling to take this step, we call upon you to actively engage with legislators to persuade their support for the purpose of calling ourselves into special session. Otherwise, as you well know, any efforts to get to the 40 vote threshold will be futile and destined to fail from the start.”

However, Dunleavy has similarly played down the severity of the pandemic at most opportunities, publicly cast doubt on the efficacy of masks and met the latest surge in cases with the assertation that it was all expected.

Publicly, the governor has said he’s still considering extending the disaster declaration—which would need the support of the Legislature—but behind the scenes, the picture has been far more murky.

Speaking with the Anchorage Daily News, Giessel said she was frustrated by the governor’s lack of urgency or communication with the public and Legislature.

“This should have been dealt with months ago,” she said.

The disaster declaration has underpinned much of the state’s response to covid-19 and to an extent helped gird local governments in their response to the virus. It enables the state to issue health care orders, allows first responders and health care workers to be compensated if they become sick with the virus and allows additional out-of-state health care professionals to fill gaps in Alaska’s hospitals.

Guided by the belief that the economic pain on Alaska has been driven almost entirely by government intervention—a position that isn’t supported by economists, who’ve argued that a great deal of the downturn is due to people voluntarily staying home or otherwise changing their behavior as cases continue to spread—some far-right Republicans have called for the end of the state’s involvement in the pandemic altogether.

On the legislative level, several far-right Republican legislators have chafed at the Legislature’s health precautions for the upcoming regular legislative session after a panel last week approved a plan that would limit access to the capitol building and require people to wear masks.

Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, sent an email to legislators on Monday afternoon to say she is “strongly opposed to any and all mask mandates,” echoing conservative talking points about how masks violate her civil rights and aren’t proven to help slow the spread of covid-19 and how other the economic cost has outweighed the human cost.

She says she wants to end the health mandates all together.

“The political response to Covid19 has caused far more damaging effects, than actually getting Covid 19, for tens of thousands of Alaskans,” she wrote. “There have been numerous negative impacts of the disaster declaration and the Governor’s 18 mandates on our economy, the workplace, travel restrictions, elderly being in isolation, people not being able to visit family and friends in hospitals,  chaos in our education system, immense stress on parents to work and educate their children, and tremendous violations to Constitutional rights including but not limited to freedom of religion,  amongst endless other negative impacts.”

As of noon Monday, Alaska has reported 15,972 cases and 84 deaths.

The letter

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