Alaska lawmakers pass COVID-19 disaster declaration bill, with $8 million in federal food aid on the line

Speaker of the House of Representatives Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, presides over a partially-filled floor session on Friday, Feb. 12, 2021. On April 28, 2021, the Legislature passed an extension to the state’s COVID-19 disaster declaration, which is retroactive to mid-February, when the last declaration expired. (Peter Segall/Juneau Empire via AP, Pool)

A bill that would extend Alaska’s disaster declaration was passed by the Legislature on Wednesday.

While the disaster declaration expired on Feb. 14, House Bill 76 would make the extension retroactive to that date. It would allow the state to operate under the declaration through the end of the year, although Gov. Mike Dunleavy could end the declaration at any time.

The Senate debated the bill over seven hours before passing it, 14 to 6. The House then voted 25 to 15 to agree to the changes the Senate made to the bill.

Senators differed over whether the disaster declaration should be in place.

Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, on Friday, April 23, 2021. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire via AP, Pool)

Anchorage Republican Sen. Mia Costello supported an amendment that would have removed the governor’s powers under the disaster declaration from the bill, but kept other elements of the legislation. She said that instead of declaring a disaster, the state should declare a victory.

“I believe that this amendment strikes at the golden heart of this bill,” she said. “If this amendment were to pass, it would retain all of the things that the other branch has told us that they need in order to move forward.”

But Juneau Democratic Sen. Jesse Kiehl opposed the amendment. He said the future path of the pandemic is uncertain.

“Our state has taken the steps we needed when we needed them, and not more,” he said. “Occasionally, I may have wanted one or two more, but we have had success thus far. Let’s leave the tools available to the governor, in case we need to reinstate testing at our airports — testing that has caught more than 2,000 cases coming into Alaska.”

The amendment was narrowly defeated by a vote of 9 to 11.

The Legislature faced a tight deadline for getting the bill to Dunleavy’s desk. Some Alaskans would lose $8 million in federal food aid if he doesn’t sign the bill into law by Friday.

State Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum sent Senate President Peter Micciche and House Speaker Louise Stutes a letter on April 23 warning them about the deadline.

Dunleavy proposed a similar bill before the disaster declaration expired. But after it expired, he said the state no longer needs to be operating under the declaration.

The administration supported different language for the bill that would not have extended the disaster declaration. That language was intended to maintain state access to federal funding, as well as the state’s ability to allocate and distribute COVID-19 vaccines.

Alaska Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum speaks at a news conference on COVID-19, Wednesday, April 1, 2020. (Creative Commons photo by Office of Gov. Mike Dunleavy)

Even if Dunleavy signs the bill, he will have the option of ending the disaster declaration. The bill also would provide Crum with the ability to declare a more limited public health emergency. The only other state operating without a statewide disaster or emergency is Michigan. It’s operating under a similar order from its health department.

The six senators who voted against the bill are all Republicans in the majority caucus: Roger Holland, Anchorage; Shelley Hughes, Palmer; Robert Myers, North Pole; Lora Reinbold, Eagle River; Mike Shower, Wasilla; and Costello.

In the House, three minority-caucus Republicans joined the majority in voting to concur to the Senate’s changes: Reps. Mike Cronk, Tok; Bart LeBon, Fairbanks; and Steve Thompson, Fairbanks. Rep. Sara Rasmussen, an Anchorage Republican who is not in a caucus, also voted to concur.