Alaska Legislature quickly passes state funding for coronavirus response

Members of Alaska Senate Majority hold a press conference about funding for COVID-19 preparedness outside Senate Chambers in Juneau on Wednesday. From left to right: Sens. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, David Wilson, R-Wasilla, Natasha von Imhof, R-Anchorage, and Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage. The Senate and House passed a bill funding the state response to the coronavirus. (Photo by Skip Gray/KTOO)

On the same day that Gov. Mike Dunleavy signed an emergency disaster declaration in order to free up resources to help the state prepare for coronavirus, the Alaska Legislature voted on Wednesday to approve $4.1 million in state funding to respond to coronavirus.

The Legislature sped up the normal budget process for the emergency funds, passing the money nine days after Dunleavy said he would ask for it.

Senate President Cathy Giessel, an Anchorage Republican, described the urgency of approving the money.

“What you see today is the Legislature — the Senate leading the way — (acting) nimbly to provide the funding that our health care professionals need,” said Giessel, an active nurse practitioner.

The Legislature also voted to authorize the state to receive $9 million in federal money to respond to the virus, and reduce the risk of an outbreak.

The money includes funds for five public health nurses; three infectious disease specialists; an emergency management specialist; and a microbiologist.

The Senate Finance Committee added the money to a mental health budget bill, House Bill 206, that was already making its way through the Legislature.

Sitka Republican Sen. Bert Stedman said this helped speed up the process.

“Today you could see that the Legislature can take pretty fast action when we need to,” he said. “And clearly with the impact of this virus in Washington state and its proximity to Alaska, we need to respond and be ready quickly.”

All 19 senators present voted for the funding. Anchorage Sen. Mia Costello was absent.

The House voted 36 to 2 for the bill. Wasilla Republican Rep. David Eastman and North Pole Republican Rep. Mike Prax voted no. Eastman said the money should have been included in a separate bill. Anchorage Republican Sara Rasmussen and Homer Republican Sarah Vance were absent.

Administration officials and legislators have said more money could be budgeted as the needs caused by the pandemic become clearer.