After marathon Senate session, Legislature passes narrowed covid-19 disaster declaration bill

The Alaska Capitol Building.

It took nearly seven hours, but the Senate churned through three dozen amendments and approved a narrowed extension of the state’s covid-19 disaster declaration on Wednesday night.

The House returned for an unusual evening floor session where members approved the changes in order to quickly get the legislation to Gov. Mike Dunleavy in order to satisfy the end-of-month federal deadline to qualify for $8 million in boosted assistance to the state’s food stamp program. The funding was the key driver behind the rush to get the legislation passed but opposition from a group of far-right senators bent on opposing any and everything called a “disaster” threatened to slow the bill down to a crawl.

Even supporters of the measure were not particularly thrilled about it.

“I did draw the shortest straw today. No one really wanted to carry this bill and I eventually agreed to do it becuase I feel it’s important to bring the bill to the floor and have the conversation,” said Sen. Natasha von Imhof, R-Anchorage. “I’d like to start my remarks with something that I believe we all agree upon, I feel confident in saying that probably everyone is tired of covid and would love nothing more than to put this pandemic behind us and get back to normal.”

She started out by noting that the bill doesn’t do anything that those conservatives have been most opposed to: It doesn’t mandate masks, it doesn’t allow the governor to issue a stay-at-home order, it doesn’t close schools and it doesn’t put any capacity limits on businesses or gatherings. The legislation not only limits the governor’s disaster powers, it also allows him to end the disaster at any time to allow Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum to issue a far more limited public health emergency, which would qualify the state for continued federal relief funding.

“It doesn’t force anyone to do anything,” von Imhof said at the end of the night.

What had been expected to be stiff, obstruction-focused opposition from the chamber’s most anti-disaster declaration members, Sens. Lora Reinbold, Mike Shower, Shelley Hughes and Mia Costello, was not nearly as fierce as they had signaled ahead of time. Reinbold returned to Juneau by ferry after she was banned from traveling on Alaska Airlines for repeated masking violations “to kill HB76,” and Hughes has bragged about dozens of amendments being drafted for the bill.

Ultimately, it was largely the Democrats who offered amendments of substance on Wednesday. Those included changes that make it easier for first responders to make worker’s comp claims from getting sick with covid on the job, increased oversight on the Department of Health and Social Services spending and tightening of language around the business liability protections.

All but on of Sen. Reinbold’s amendments were opposed by the body. The one accepted amendment would add religious exemptions to the vaccine.

Republicans also sought to turn the bill into a political platform with Sen. Hughes offering and withdrawing an amendment that would have barred trans athletes from participating in sports with anyone other than their biological sex. Hughes spoke at length about the issue, claiming that it’s brought up by constituents more than the PFD, before pulling it. Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla, pulled a similar move with legislation that would penalize school districts financially if they teach critical race theory, which teaches how historical inequalities and racism continue to impact American society today. It’s one of the latest conservative boogeymen. Wilson ultimately withdrew the amendment before anyone else could discuss it.

By the end of the marathon floor session, the promised fervent opposition to the measure had largely petered out with little debate about measures and, in some cases, little explanation about what proposed amendments did.

House Bill 76 finally passed the Senate on a 14-6 vote. Sens. Hughes, Costello, Shower, Reinbold, Roger Holland and Robert Myers voted against the bill. All other senators voted in favor, sending it back to the House for consideration where it passed on a 25-15 vote, which is better than it did on its first time around.

The legislation now heads to the governor.

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