Key committee approves CARES Act relief after weeks long impasse

Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, discusses a bill in 2019. (Photo by Skip Gray/KTOO)

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 $586.6 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 that the entire Alaska Legislature should meet like those in other states have to approve the funding. 

“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. 

Get the latest coverage of the coronavirus in Alaska

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:

Tuck: “I am not going to play stupid just to get along with people. 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.” 

Hoffman: “You do.”

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

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.