Senate takes up House bill extending gov’s emergency powers
The standoff over the governor’s pandemic authorities that has consumed much of the Legislature’s time in recent weeks is slowly nearing resolution.
The Senate Finance Committee took two days of testimony on House Bill 76, which would extend the state’s COVID-19 public health emergency declaration through September, but set the bill aside March 30 ahead of expected amendments by Senate Republicans to match what Gov. Mike Dunleavy says he now wants.
The House passed HB 76 March 26 on a 22-15 vote. House coalition leaders have been steadfast in their desire to renew the governor’s emergency powers since the disaster declaration expired in mid-February when the House was still struggling to organize.
They have the backing of some of the state’s biggest health care and charitable organizations that insist the official declaration is the most reliable way for the state to continue receiving important federal relief and extend numerous regulatory waivers.
Shortly before the House passed HB 76, Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, told reporters that the Senate majority is aligned with Dunleavy to “nip the overreaching powers inherent in a disaster declaration.”
The governor submitted HB 76 and similar legislation in the Senate in January to extend the public health emergency that at the time was still in effect. Dunleavy has since backed away from that position and is now asking for a handful of limited authorities and waivers requested by Department of Health and Social Services officials.
According to Micciche, Senate Republicans also intend to temporarily increase the statutory cap on school district reserve funds from 10 percent of their annual budgets to 75 percent, allowing them more flexibility in managing all of the federal COVID-19 aid that continues to flow to local governments.
“It’s ironic that the Republicans more aligned with the governor want to pinch back and only allow the powers he needs during the recovery phase,” Micciche said March 26.
“(Dunleavy) has signaled quite clearly that he has no intention of a new declaration so we’re giving him what he needs to manage the few remaining issues.”
Micciche added that it’s his understanding based on new information from DHSS that the state has until April 15 to pass the bill and still receive the $8 million per month in federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, funds, which equates to an additional 2.2 million meals per month that can be distributed across the state, according to the Food Bank of Alaska. DHSS officials previously said the deadline was April 1, which is when amendments to HB 76 are due in the Senate Finance Committee.
Dunleavy wrote to all legislators March 24 emphasizing his belief that the state’s COVID-19 vaccination program has been extremely successful and renewing the full disaster declaration would damage public trust.
Micciche indicated Senate Republicans would likely change HB 76 to more closely resemble what Dunleavy is now asking for rather than start with their own bill at this point in the process.
Senate Finance members heard from providers and other public health officials who acknowledged the political implications of a new declaration but again stressed the need to ensure the state is giving itself all the resources it may need.
“This is not about fear or crises, it’s about being practical,” Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association CEO Jared Kosin told lawmakers.
Kosin and numerous local government leaders across Alaska have stressed the declaration helps facilitate widespread airport testing of incoming travelers for COVID-19.
The state’s testing program detected 2,514 COVID-19 cases among incoming travelers through early March, according to DHSS records. Local governments can still require testing at their airports but the state testing program at large airports is mostly unused at this point.
Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla, who also chairs the Senate Health and Social Services Committee, said he has heard mixed messages from the administration regarding the current severity of the pandemic and how long it is likely to last.
State Epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin said doctors are unsure how long the public health dangers from the pandemic will continue. He said vaccinations are helping greatly but new variants of the virus continue to challenge forecasting.
“At this point there is no end in sight in the near future,” McLaughlin said.
Members of the public once more largely urged against renewing the declaration, which would happen automatically if the current version of HB 76 were to pass.
Finance chair Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, emphasized during testimony from DHSS Commissioner Adam Crum that nearly all other states continue to have some sort of official public health declaration to help manage the pandemic.
“We would be an anomaly outside of everybody else,” Stedman said of not renewing the declaration.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].