After weeks-long impasse, key lawmakers approve CARES Act relief

Rep.. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, speaks during a House floor session, March 11, 2019. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

A key state legislative committee approved more than $1 billion in federal relief on Monday.

The action will allow Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration to begin sending payments to communities and businesses.

The biggest items were $568.6 million in direct municipal relief; $290 million in small business relief; and $100 million for the state’s fisheries.

The majority of the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee members said it was more important to send the money out than to continue to argue over the legal authority for the spending.

Sen. Lyman Hoffman, a Bethel Democrat, rejected the idea the entire Alaska Legislature should meet like those in other states have to approve the funding.

Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D- Bethel, speaks during a joint session of the Alaska Legislature, Jan. 24, 2020. (Photo by Skip Gray/KTOO)

“We need to say, ‘We are the decision makers, let’s make some decisions today,’” Hoffman said. “The people of Alaska want us — they’ve elected us — to make these decisions. Now, let’s get to business and let’s vote and get this thing done.”

The committee also approved less controversial items, including: $49 million in airport funding; $10 million to assist the homeless and prevent homelessness; and $3 million for the Whittier tunnel and other transportation operations.

The Legislature’s nonpartisan legal adviser has questioned whether the spending that wasn’t tied to specific items in the state budget could legally be approved through the committee process.

Committee Chair Rep. Chris Tuck, an Anchorage Democrat, said the entire Legislature must meet to approve the spending for it to be legal. He expressed concern a lawsuit could delay the money or force the state to repay it to the federal government.

Tuck engaged in a heated exchange with Hoffman.

“I am not going to play stupid just to get along with people,” Tuck said. “I have an oath of obligation, just like everybody else has an oath of obligation, and I take that seriously. You may not — and I’m not going to say that you do or you don’t.”

“You do,” said Hoffman.

“Alright, well, that’s what this is about, right here,” Tuck replied.

The meeting cooled down after a break. Tuck later ruled the controversial items out of order, but the committee voted 7-3 to overrule him. It then approved the items without objection.

Supporters of the action said the entire Legislature could vote to ratify the decision when it reconvenes in the future.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a Republican, repeatedly called on the committee members to act. On Friday, Dunleavy said he can’t see why they hadn’t.

“I would ask that they ask themselves: ‘Is the hold up — whatever is holding this up — is it of such magnitude that it’s worth holding up, as Alaskans are waiting for those funds?’” Dunleavy said.

The Legislature recessed instead of adjourning in late March. The last day of the session under the state constitution is May 20.

Editor’s note: This story initially had the amount of CARES Act money allocated for community assistance as $586.6 million. The amount is actually $568.6 million. The story has been corrected.

Andrew Kitchenman

State Government Reporter, Alaska Public Media & KTOO

State government plays an outsized role in the life of Alaskans. As the state continues to go through the painful process of deciding what its priorities are, I bring Alaskans to the scene of a government in transition.

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