Disaster extension stalls in Senate

Lawmakers held relatively few hearings around the Easter weekend and instead appear to have manufactured another impasse over time-sensitive legislation that a majority of them feel in some form is critical to running the state.

House Bill 76, which would renew the state COVID-19 public health emergency declaration, was pulled from the Senate Finance Committee schedule April 6 and a second Finance hearing for ongoing legislation was canceled as well.

As of April 7, lawmakers have gone more than a week without hearing the legislation backed by nearly all of the state’s major business, health care, charitable and seafood industry organizations among others and have roughly a week to hash out disagreements at several layers before the state misses out on $8 million in additional federal food assistance aid. HB 76 had not been scheduled for future hearings as of this writing April 7.

It was previously believed the state had to address its lack of an official public health emergency by April 1 to receive the boosted Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, funds from the federal government but Department of Health and Social Services officials have since indicated they can get the money retroactively if it is dealt with by April 15; Senate President Peter Micciche called it the “magic day” in a briefing with reporters on the issue.

Finance co-chair Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, called for amendments to HB 76 by April 2, at which point it seemed likely Senate Republicans would introduce the scaled-back version of the bill they have discussed for weeks to address the food assistance, relaxed telehealth requirements, school district reserve limits and select other issues identified by the administration to better manage the pandemic without a true emergency declaration. Bishop did not elaborate as to why it wasn’t heard.

Numerous Republicans in both chambers argue a declaration is unnecessary as daily statewide COVID-19 case counts have been relatively stable at lower levels and vaccines are now available to all adults; case levels have increased in recent days but remain low. Declaring a disaster again will just facilitate the continuation of government restrictions that have been overly burdensome for months, they contend.

Micciche has maintained his position that the plan for targeted COVID-19 management legislation is the only way to ensure something is enacted.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy originally submitted HB 76 to extend the declaration at the start of the session but no longer supports it. Dunleavy has said since it expired in mid-February — when lawmakers also didn’t act despite clear majorities supporting the declaration at the time — he believes his administration can adequately manage public health concerns without a formal declaration. Doing so is a step towards returning to a state of normalcy, according to the governor.

House coalition leaders, on the other hand, have emphasized the broad scope of organizations across the state that have stressed the importance of having an active declaration while unemployment remains high and health care and business practices are altered because of the pandemic.

Another prolonged impasse at the start of the session over leadership in the House prevented the chamber from taking up the dealing with the emergency declaration when it first expired.

While the House and Senate majorities have been at odds for weeks on the details of the bill, HB 76 seemed on track to pass the Senate with Republicans’ changes before it would be settled either via a concurring vote of the House or in conference committee as is traditionally the case in such instances and can be done quickly.

The holdup in Senate Finance further squeezes the timeline for lawmakers to at least address the issues they and the administration agree need to be dealt with.

As of late March, Alaska and Michigan — the latter where COVID-19 cases have spiked of late, according to CDC data — were the only states to not have some sort of official emergency order in place, according to a spreadsheet from the National Governors Association. Many other states have since extended declarations that were otherwise set to expire March 31.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
04/07/2021 - 9:15am