Alaska House passes COVID-19 relief bill; Senate has one more day to approve

House Minority Leader Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, on Monday, May 18, 2020, in Juneau, Alaska. Lawmakers gaveled in for the last few days of their regular session to pass a COVID-19 aid bill. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

The Alaska House adjourned its session on Tuesday after passing a bill, 38 to 1, to approve a plan to spend federal COVID-19 relief.

The Senate passed its own version of the bill, but with the House adjourned, the Senate will have to pass the House version for it to take effect soon. That vote could be on Wednesday, the deadline under the state constitution to end the session.

Rep. Lance Pruitt, an Anchorage Republican, said lawmakers put aside their political differences to support the measure.

“I think everyone could have seen something different,” Pruitt said of legislators’ priorities for the relief funding. “But in the end, we recognize that the importance is that Alaskans get the money that they need right now to ensure that their businesses are maintained; their communities can provide the services that they need to the individuals that are affected; and that Alaskans can make it through this challenge together.”

The bill provides roughly $1.1 billion to communities, small businesses and others under a plan initially developed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration. The plan was approved by the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee on May 11. The administration and most committee members wanted the committee vote to be sufficient to send the money out.

But a Juneau resident filed a lawsuit alleging the process was unconstitutional and that the full Legislature must vote on it. Legislative leaders called lawmakers back to Juneau to ratify the committee’s action.

The Legislative Budget and Audit Committee considered what to do about Dunleavy’s plan for three weeks. During that time, other House committees held meetings and heard testimony from municipal leaders and others about the plan. And the administration made changes to the plan, including addressing some of the concerns that were raised in the committee meetings.

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Geran Tarr said the time it took to pass the plan led to improvements.

For example, business owners were concerned that the administration’s original plan for $290 million in small business relief would have been a loan program.

“Now it’s a grant program,” Tarr said. “That’s huge, and that is a huge change.”

Administration officials have said the first of $568.6 million in payments to communities could start soon after the Legislature passes the bill and the state receives information it has requested from communities.

The U.S. Congress may pass more relief. If that happens, it’s likely there would have to be a special session for lawmakers to decide how to deal with those funds.