Alaska’s public health officials are rushing to understand what will happen if the Legislature fails to extend the state’s public health emergency disaster declaration as it becomes increasingly certain legislators will fail to get an extension passed by the Sunday deadline.
There are significant concerns about what it could mean for the state’s largely successful vaccination program, but what they can say for certain is it will jeopardize $8 million the state receives in boosted federal support for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, called SNAP or food stamps.
Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum told the senators Wednesday the state is in the process of seeing if it can attain a waiver and still receive the funding but said that such a waiver doesn’t currently exist and therefore has never been issued. He noted that boost is month-by-month so the loss of funding wouldn’t be felt until March.
“We have been working with the Food and Nutrition Service to see if there’s a waiver we can attain,” he said. “Because they do this on a month-to-month basis, we are good for the month of February but if we do not have a state disaster declaration in place for the month of March, we will lose $8 million a month in SNAP benefits.”
The program typically has about $15 million go out each month in benefits but was boosted by Congress to address a sharp increase in food insecurity and hunger amid the pandemic.
While the unorganized House is the ultimate barrier currently facing the extension, the extension has also met stiff resistance in the Senate from conservative Republicans. They’ve argued in support of their position that most federal funding doesn’t require the state to have a disaster declaration in place. That’s now not entirely true given the SNAP funding.
One of those senators is Anchorage Republican Sen. Mia Costello, who chairs the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee. She quickly turned the focus to other funding that would stand before moderate Republican Sen. Gary Stevens pulled it back.
“Well this is a big issue. $8 million a month is almost $100 million a year. This is for assistance for people who are in poverty and need food,” he said. “There’s a lot of issues that we don’t really know the answers to. Maybe we’ll find that there’s a waiver and maybe we won’t find that.”
He said it’s issues like these that warrant, at the very least, the Legislature pushing forward with a 30-day extension of the disaster declaration instead of the extension through the end of September that was requested by Dunleavy.
“That’s why it seems to me it makes sense to do a 30-day extension to give us time to really get into the detail to whatever we don’t have the answers to right now,” he said. “Maybe it’s not the best situation that we can hope for, but it seems to me a 30-day extension would allows us to find the answers to some of these questions. The last thing we want to do is deprive people in nearly $100 million in food assistance.”
Costello responded that it’s only going to be a problem if they can’t attain a waiver (which doesn’t exist) before March. She continued to push alternative mechanisms for continuing the state’s pandemic response, which would require the Legislature to draft, consider and pass several alternative bills instead of the one bill before them.
“I support SNAP funding,” she said. “I want to be clear about that. I don’t want to read in the paper tomorrow that I don’t. I think we need to be clear that’s OK through February. What I heard the commissioner say is in order to continue that, the commissioner of HSS would need the authority through legislation to declare a public health emergency. I would be open to the having the Legislature contemplate that.”
The committee later approved the measure, sending it on to the Senate Finance Committee for consideration.
Whether the Senate goes with the single measure or slate of individual measures to skirt around calling it a disaster, the House still remains unorganized and unable to take up any legislation. It’s with that that several legislators are calling on Gov. Mike Dunleavy to act unilaterally and extend the disaster declaration outside of state law.
Half of the House signed a letter on Wednesday calling on the governor to do exactly that. The letter from the members of the House Bipartisan Coalition aims to give the governor some legal cover for passing the measure, signaling that at least half of the House would approve the declaration if not for the gridlock.
“Our commitment remains for the House to ratify continuation of the disaster declaration,” they wrote. “While we continue to assert the Legislature ultimately holds authority to address ongoing disasters, we also acknowledge the critical nature of continuing the disaster declaration.”
The governor held a news conference on Wednesday night where he said extending the disaster declaration is up to the Legislature.
“If the declaration is not extended, we’re not going to throw up our hands. We’re going to just roll up our sleeves like we have and approach this virus in a science-based, data-based approach,” Dunleavy said, according to the Anchorage Daily News report on the news conference. “Would a declaration assist us? Yes. If there is no declaration, is it going to throw us into chaos? We don’t know, we don’t think so, but certainly, an extension would help the cause.”