Lawmakers balance speed, safety as they reconvene in Juneau to sort out coronavirus aid

Alaska State Capitol Building, Juneau, January 23, 2017. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

Dozens of lawmakers trickled into Juneau over the weekend. The state legislature is set to convene in Juneau on Monday. 

Lawmakers are going to work through Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s plan for spending federal CARES Act funds. A legislative committee approved that plan last week, but a Juneau man sued, saying the whole Legislature needed to meet to approve the coronavirus aid.

That lawsuit threatens to delay distribution of more than $1 billion of federal funds into communities, businesses and non-profits. Now, lawmakers have given themselves until Wednesday to pass a bill that would allow the money to flow out into the state.

Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, said three days is just about the bare minimum amount of time needed to pass a bill. 

“To do a bill in 3 days, you need a ¾ vote in each body to hustle it through,” he said. “It is the absolute fastest constitutionally that it could be done.”

If lawmakers don’t get it done by Wednesday, things could get complicated — they’re skirting close to the constitutional limit on session length. They might have to call themselves into a special session. Gov. Mike Dunleavy could also do it. 

Juneau Assembly Member Rob Edwardson said he wasn’t surprised that lawmakers had to return to Juneau over the CARES Act funding and he’s not too concerned about the influx of people. Especially since most of the legislators won’t be bringing all of their staff with them. 

“I think it’s going to be a smaller number coming into town than, say, snowbirds returning or people coming into town for commercial fisheries or fisheries processing,” he said.

Meanwhile, Legislative Affairs staff worked over the weekend to put a series of safety protocols in place so that 60 lawmakers and some staff members can work in the same building during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

They finished those protocols late Sunday evening. The building will remain closed to the public.  

Capital City Fire/Rescue personnel will run screening stations at the entrances. They’ll ask lawmakers, staff and journalists a series of questions and take their temperatures. Once people get through that process, they’ll get a sticker indicating that they’ve been screened. 

This is required for staff and media. Lawmakers can refuse — but they won’t be given a sticker. Everyone is required to wear masks or face coverings and practice social distancing. Only one person will be allowed in the elevators at a time.

Kiehl says that he’s kept in touch with his colleagues and most of them have been working from home and limiting social contact in their home communities.  

“I’m sure there are exceptions,” he said. “But, as I’ve talked with my colleagues, the folks I’m talking to have been behaving responsibly, trying to minimize their chance of catching – their chance of spreading. ”

There’s been some blowback about the screening protocols. In an email exchange first published by Alaska Landmine, Nikiski Republican Representative Ben Carpenter sent a email to House lawmakers comparing the screening to Nazi Germany’s labeling of Jews. 

Other members of the House pushed back against that idea. That exchange made national headlines over the weekend. 

House Minority Leader Lance Pruitt told the Anchorage Daily News that Carpenter’s emails were inappropriate and that he should apologize. Homer Representative Sarah Vance defended Carpenter. She told the Daily News that some people fear the virus and some people fear overreach and she thinks they should be sensitive to both. 

Kiehl said that exchange is an indicator that legislators probably aren’t going to agree on everything.  

“So, you know, probably won’t be universal love and snuggles — but people will come and do the job,” he said.

Juneau’s municipal leaders say they are hoping to get the CARES Act funding as quickly as possible. There’s a $34 million hole in the city’s budget and city leaders are grappling with how to fill it. They’re hoping to at least partially backfill it with the federal CARES Act funding. But that requires that the lawmakers pass a bill quickly and that the city figure out how to use the money legally.  

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