Senators unveil bill to extend, limit Alaska disaster declaration as deadline for food aid looms

Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, participates in a Senate Finance Committee discussion in March 2019. On Monday, Bishop said the committee’s version of House Bill 76 provides for continued additional federal food aid to Alaskans while also limiting Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s COVID-19 disaster declaration powers. (Photo by Skip Gray/KTOO)

Some Alaska state senators are aiming to pass a bill that would extend Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s disaster declaration, but with more limited powers than were in place until mid-February. 

The end of the month is the deadline for the Legislature to pass a bill — and for Dunleavy to sign it — or low-income Alaskans will lose $8 million in emergency food aid. 

On Monday, the Senate Finance Committee introduced a new version of House Bill 76, which the House passed on March 26. 

Fairbanks Republican Sen. Click Bishop said the goal of the bill is to allow the state to collect additional food aid, as well as assist with the COVID-19 response in areas like distributing vaccines. But he also said the committee listened to the administration in offering a more limited bill. 

“We’ve heard loud and clear that the governor didn’t need all these powers, and so we’ve acted accordingly,” he said. 

This bill is on the middle ground between what the House passed and the more limited measure the governor wants.  

It would extend the disaster declaration through the end of the year, allowing Alaskans to receive $72 million in food aid. Bishop said this money will help people who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. 

“We talk about wanting to help the economy and people in need,” he said. “We all know that the highest percentage of unemployed Alaskans is [among] those that are making less than about $40,000 a year. They’re the ones in the greatest need.”

In February, the average additional Supplemental Aid to Needy Families benefits in Alaska ranged from $265 in urban areas to $436 in the most rural areas.

The additional food aid wasn’t sent to families earlier this month, though they are receiving their regular benefits. They could still receive these additional benefits retroactively. A spokesperson for the state Department of Health and Social Services said it’s the department’s understanding that Alaska would be eligible to receive the additional aid for April if a law is enacted that complies with federal emergency requirements by the end of the month. 

The bill would give Commissioner of Health and Social Services Adam Crum more public health emergency powers during the pandemic. This is similar to what is being done in Michigan, another state without a disaster declaration. 

Some lawmakers would like to make permanent changes to state law that would allow for public health emergencies that are more limited than the full range of powers that the governor has under disaster declarations. 

The Senate Finance version of the bill also would have an effect on the state budget. 

The bill would add a provision that would limit the administration’s ability to spend federal relief funds in areas that the Legislature hasn’t already approved. Sitka Republican Sen. Bert Stedman said this may require the Legislature to meet in a special session. 

 “It’s to ensure that the Legislature convenes and exercises its appropriation authority dealing with these substantial dollars coming from the federal government,” he said.   

He said federal pandemic aid won’t solve the state’s long-term budget problems

“It does not fix our structural deficit. Let’s be very clear about that,” he said. “This is just frosting on a lumpy cake, to make it look nice and smooth, right?  So it doesn’t fix the underlying issues that we’re struggling with.”

Stedman said it’s likely the Legislature will pass a plan to use federal funds from the American Rescue Plan by the May 19 deadline to end the session. But he said it’s important that the Legislature also pass a plan for any large new amounts of federal money that come in after the session ends. 

 

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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