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

A white woman with white hair wearing a mask walks in a ood panelled room
State Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, leaves the House floor after being sworn in during the first day of the 32nd Legislative Session on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021 in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

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

House Bill 76 would make the extension retroactive to its original expiration on Feb. 14, and would allow the state to operate under the disaster declaration through the end of the year, or until Gov. Mike Dunleavy chooses to end it.

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

Senators differed over whether the disaster declaration should be reinstated.

Anchorage Republican Sen. Mia Costello supported an amendment that would have removed the governor’s special disaster powers from the bill while keeping other elements of the legislation. She said instead of declaring a disaster, Alaska should declare 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: Alaska will lose $8 million in federal food aid if the governor 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.

Before the disaster declaration expired in February, Dunleavy had proposed a similar bill. But after its expiration, Dunleavy said the state no longer needed to be operating under the declaration.

The administration supported different language for the bill, intended to maintain state access to federal funding and 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 still 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, which is 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.