Alaska lawmakers pass funding bill, finishing what they came to Juneau to do

Nathan Paris cleans the desks on the floor of state House after legislators held a session on Monday, May 18, 2020, in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

The Alaska Senate approved Governor Mike Dunleavy’s plan for COVID-19 relief and adjourned this year’s session.

The Senate vote came a day after the House passed the bill and adjourned.

Fairbanks Republican Senator Click Bishop says the Legislature voted to ratify what are known as revised program legislatives, or RPLs, as a way of quickly getting money out to communities, small businesses and others.

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“The governor requested the RPL process to get these funds out in a timely fashion to the people of Alaska,” he said. “We’ve talked about how people are hurting. We’ve heard about how businesses are failing every day.”

The Senate vote was 19-1. Eagle River Republican Senator Lora Reinbold was the only no.

The vote to ratify the actions of the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee concluded three days of work after a 50-day recess due to the pandemic. The Legislature reconvened after Juneau resident Eric Forrer filed a lawsuit challenging the committee’s actions.

When Forrer filed the lawsuit, he said the Legislature must pass a bill to approve the relief. But he said that the bill it ended up passing on Wednesday was not what the state constitution requires. Forrer said the Legislature must pass an appropriation bill.

Forrer is proceeding with the lawsuit, and says he wants the courts to weigh in on whether the ratification vote was constitutional.

“It constitutes a precedent,” he said. “Next year, somebody comes up against a problem: ‘Oh, we can solve the problem with unconstitutional language. They did last year — let’s do it again this year.’”

But Forrer says he will not seek a court action to block the relief.

Sitka Republican Senator Bert Stedman said an appropriation bill could have taken months or years if lawmakers couldn’t agree.

Dunleavy thanked the Legislature for approving the plan. It will pay $568.6 million dollars to communities, $290 million to small businesses and hundreds of millions more to specific industries or services.

The Legislature didn’t consider what to do if the U.S. Congress approves more relief for states. Forrer didn’t rule out another lawsuit, but said he wouldn’t want to see the Legislature again hold another brief session if Dunleavy and the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee follow a similar process in the future.