Outgoing Legislative Council sets COVID-19 policies for next session
The public will be barred from the Alaska State Capitol, members of the news media will be prohibited from entering the House and Senate chambers, and lawmakers must wear masks under a set of new anti-COVID-19 rules approved Dec. 28 by a committee of the Alaska Legislature.
Any legislator that refuses to submit to a health screening at the Capitol’s entrance “will be denied entrance to the Capitol.” Any lawmaker who refuses to wear a face covering on the floor of the House or Senate “will be escorted … to their individual office where they shall remain,” according to the new enforcement guidelines.
The rules will be in effect only until the House and Senate elect new leaders for the upcoming legislative session, but both halves of the Legislature are deadlocked, and it isn’t certain when either the House or Senate will resolve the leadership question.
That uncertainty has left the joint House-Senate Legislative Council in charge, and it voted 11-1 to approve the rules.
“These rules only apply until we have a new president and speaker. It is pretty extraordinary, but we know the fears that many of our employees have,” said Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak and the council’s chairman.
The lone “no” vote was from Rep. DeLena Johnson, R-Palmer.
Johnson said she believes the council’s recommendations could result in the disenfranchisement of Alaskans if their legislator refuses to follow the rules and is denied the ability to vote. With the House and Senate closely divided, the absence of even one legislator could decide key votes.
“I personally don’t think Lora Reinbold should be disenfranchised from voting on a new Senate President,” she said, referring hypothetically to the Eagle River senator who declined to wear a mask in the Capitol earlier this year and castigated Alaska Airlines for its masking policy. (Reinbold has not yet spoken about the new rules or her intentions for the upcoming session.)
“Maybe when you’re in a deadlock tie, keeping somebody off the floor might mean something,” she said.
Four of the “yes” votes came from lawmakers who lost their reelection campaigns this fall. One of them, Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, compared the mask mandate to the Legislature’s “decorum” rules, which require legislators to abide by a dress code.
“In this scenario that we’re living in right now, a mask is part of floor decorum,” she said.
Legislators are also being asked to quarantine after traveling to or from Juneau and are being discouraged from making their usual return-to-district trips during the session. This year, legislators can arrive in Juneau up to 15 days before session and receive regular per diem expense payments for each day before the session begins.
Johnson and other lawmakers question whether the Legislative Council’s vote has power past Jan. 19, when the next legislative session begins. The Alaska Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that one Legislature cannot bind another, except through a constitutional amendment. The Dec. 28 vote took place during the 31st Legislature. When the 32nd Legislature begins, that action loses power, they say.
“Clearly the work that we’re doing today becomes advisory in nature until some other mechanism is adopted,” said Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham.
Stevens disagreed, saying the Dec. 28 vote is binding.
“It’s a decision by Legislative Council that is in effect now, and it will be until the House and Senate decides who their presiding officers are going to be,” he said.
“When these policies need to begin being enforced, we will still be within the 31st Alaska state Legislature, so in my opinion, it is appropriate that this group and the current presiding officers make policy decisions,” Megan Wallace, the Legislature’s legal services director, advised the Legislative Council.
Jessica Geary is executive director of the Legislative Affairs Agency, the Legislature’s nonpartisan administrative wing. She said by text message that she considers the vote “binding (Legislative Council) policy until amended or rescinded by the next (Legislative Council).”
Earlier this year, similar restrictions in Oregon’s state Capitol were met with violent opposition as rioters smashed buildings, sprayed bear mace and invaded the building. Stevens, who grew up in Oregon, said he doesn’t think that will happen in Alaska.
Asked why, he said, “I’m not sure. We have some extremists, but we also have a lot of people who believe in the middle way and compromise and getting things done. I hope, I think, they have a stronger voice.”