Senate’s scaled-back disaster bill would put serious limits on Dunleavy’s spending power

The long-awaited rollout of the Senate Finance Committee’s version of legislation extending the state’s covid-19 disaster declaration didn’t feature any talk about case rates, hospital capacity or variant strains. Instead, it focused largely on spending.

With more than $1.1 billion in federal relief coming to the state, the latest version of the much-delayed disaster declaration legislation, House Bill 76, contains considerable limits on how Gov. Mike Dunleavy can spend the money without the approval of the full Legislature, reflecting growing interest to keep major spending decisions in the hands of legislators.

Specifically, the legislation would bar Dunleavy from utilizing the Legislature’s interim budgeting process—known as the revised program legislative process—to expend money from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSAA), the recently passed American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) or any pending legislation related to infrastructure, jobs, covid or the economy. The process was used at length last year to approve several programs, including the state-run business relief program, but leaves little room for legislators to have input on the spending.

With federal guidance on how the latest round of money expected just a week and a half before the end of the 121-day session, legislators aren’t sure that they’ll have enough time to dictate the spending and unsure they have the votes—specifically the votes of Dunleavy-aligned far-right legislators—to call themselves back into a special session after the regular session expires.

Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla, worried that the measure would require the governor to call the Legislature many times throughout the interim.

Senate Finance Committee co-chair Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, that’s kind of the point.

“We are the appropriating body and if we don’t have enough members within the Legislature that will do their elected job and want to come to Juneau and deal with the appropriations, it will then go through the RPL process,” he said, explaining how the RPL process essentially just serves to notify the Legislature that the governor is going to spend the money with little opportunity to alter or stop the spending. “(The governor could use the same process again) thereby excluding the appropriating body, the Legislature, from any involvement with the distribution and allocation of those funds. The concern is there is a significant number of legislators that do not want to take their obligation seriously and show up in Juneau. We saw that last summer and last fall. We were unable to call ourselves back in.”

In the fall, former Senate President Cathy Giessel and former House Speaker Bryce Edgmon both wrote to the governor, asking him to call the Legislature back into special session or at least talk with his reluctant allies. He refused.

Stedman called the section of the bill “a little insurance policy” that the Legislature, not the governor alone, will get to decide how more than a billion dollars in federal relief money is spent.

“We need to have restrictions on the RPL process to ensure that if the Legislature does not have the wherewithal to call themselves back into session to deal with a billion or two billion dollars, the governor cannot receive (and spend) the money,” he said. “It would put the state in a position to encourage the governor to step in and call the Legislature to session to deal with their obligations, our sworn constitutional obligations as the appropriator.”

Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, said he had concerns with the language and noted that the House has yet to pass a measure that would allow them to hold floor session votes remotely. The Senate passed the measure, which requires a supermajority vote, earlier this session but the divided House has not brought up the measure.

Stedman noted that the measure, as it stands, is not perfect and could be amended before approving the measure and sending it back to the House for consideration. The committee set a 5 p.m. deadline for amendments to the bill.

Also in the bill

The measure has been a flashpoint between the House, Senate and governor over the direction of the pandemic in Alaska. While Dunleavy initially pushed for a full renewal of the disaster declaration, he has since asked for a more scaled-back version that he says is consistent with the improving state of Alaska’s pandemic. The Senate Republicans have largely sided with him. The House, however, has been more skeptical about the path ahead, arguing that while things are improving it’s possible that new variants would call for a stronger response by the state and have opted to keep more expansive powers in the bill passed out of its chamber last month.

This version of the bill seems to be an attempt at compromise between the two positions. It extends the disaster declaration through the end of the year but scales back the governor’s powers, barring him from issuing hunker down orders, commandeering private property, limiting travel or limiting the sale of alcoholic beverages, explosives and combustibles.

It does contain measures aimed at accessing boosted assistance for the state’s food stamps program and continuing the distribution of vaccines. The food stamp funding portion is particularly critical as Alaska has already lost eligibility for the boosted funds and needs to renew the declaration very soon to still receive this month’s allotment. Beneficiaries of the program could see the boost arrive in retroactive payments.

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