The Senate is set to finally take up action on legislation to extend the state’s disaster declaration and enact measures needed to access of millions of dollars in federal funding, a month after it was passed in the House and just two days before the federal government’s deadline for food stamp assistance.
Before the Senate is a pared back version of what passed the House on March 26. While the House sought a more expansive disaster declaration, arguing that the state needed flexibility for whatever the pandemic had in store, the Senate version is what some are calling “Disaster Declaration Lite” that withholds some of the powers that far-right conservatives have been most opposed to like stay-at-home orders.
But that’s not likely to satisfy the Senate’s most far-right members who’ve opposed reinstating any form of the disaster declaration even though they mostly recognize the state’s disaster declaration and Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s utilization of the powers are not in any way responsible for Anchorage’s mask mandates and gathering limits (the latter of which are being fully lifted this coming Monday). Sens. Mike Shower, Mia Costello, Shelley Hughes and Lora Reinbold all spoke at length on Monday during a procedural vote on the bill to outline their opposition to the measure.
“My hashtag is #covid4ever is what it feels like,” said Sen. Shower, who early in the pandemic noted that it looked unnervingly like the plot of a Tom Clancy book. “We’re never going to get away from this. We’re talking 2023, 2024 if you see the numbers. … My district does not want to support this. They don’t want to hear about covid disasters anymore. They want to move on. They want to see recovery. They want to see the economy opened up. They want their businesses and jobs back. They’re sick and tired about talking about covid and disaster.”
Reinbold, who was banned from fly on Alaska Airlines for repeated violations of the masking policy, said she drove to Haines to take the ferry because “Nothing could get in the way to be in the Capitol to fight to executive branch infringement on the legislature & defending your rights by trying to stop HB76,” she wrote on Facebook, adding in another post that, “I am happier than ever to engage in the political battle….to help kill HB76.”
In a livestream earlier this week, Hughes told her followers they putting together more than 50 amendments on the measure. It’s rare to see more than a handful of amendments on any bill and it can take hours if not days to work through that many.
It’s a tightrope because if the Republican-run Senate pushes the bill too far to the right, it stands to lose the support of the chamber’s Democrats who are already feel it’s been watered down too much. Opposition by the six Democrats and four far-right Republicans, who are not likely to support any version of the bill, would bar the bill’s passage altogether. Even if it does pass, the House could reject the measure and send it to conference committee.
Any delay, whether it’s to take up the dozens of amendments or because amendments water down the bill too much, will have serious consequences for Alaska. The biggest and most immediate being the loss of $8 million in boosted federal funding for food stamps, amounting to about 2.2 million meals, per month. Recipients of the funding have been without it for the month but could receive retroactive payments if the legislation is enacted before April is over.
House Speaker Louise Stutes told the Anchorage Daily News that she believes the Senate has delayed action to pressure the House into accepting whatever changes they make. Senate President Peter Micciche denied the delay was strategic but a result of trying to find support for the measure in the Senate.
“I hope the (House) takes that into account that this has been a struggle for us as well,” Micciche told the paper. “We’re not thrilled with the addition of an extended declaration. They’re not thrilled with the option for a ‘DD lite.’ But that’s what it’s about in this building and trying to get something across the finish line. We have to work together.”
The Senate floor session is set to begin at 11 a.m.