Tensions flare in Alaska House over masking, floor sessions

A photo of a multi-story building.
The Alaska State Capitol in Juneau. (Photo by Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO and Alaska Public Media)

Tensions are flaring in the Alaska House over masking rules imposed during a COVID-19 outbreak, with floor sessions cut short or canceled and minority Republicans decrying what they called delay tactics with the chamber yet to debate a state spending package.

House Speaker Louise Stutes said Monday that masks would be required in the House chambers until further notice, citing COVID-19 cases. She later recessed a floor session, saying there were members who had “chosen not to comply” with the directive.

RELATED: Alaska House dealing with COVID-19 outbreak

In a statement, she said several House members had tested positive for COVID-19 in recent days and that the plan had been to read the budget across Monday and “take it up later this week with the hope that these members would be able to return in time.”

Stutes’ coalition holds a slim, 21-member majority in the 40-person House, which also has 18 minority Republicans and one Republican who is not part of a caucus. Elements of the budget are expected to be hotly debated, including what the size of the annual dividend check paid to residents should be. It was unclear when the debate would begin.

A floor session scheduled for Tuesday was canceled “after it was made clear that a portion of the minority once again had decided to disregard the rules of the chamber by not wearing a mask to session,” said Joe Plesha, the House majority coalition communications director.

Plesha, in a statement, said there were more than 20 active COVID-19 cases involving people who work around the Capitol. He said seating in the House chamber is confined and that Stutes had intended for the masking rules to be short-lived.

House Republicans released a statement Tuesday saying they take personal responsibility for their health and for actions they take inside and outside the Capitol.

“If we are feeling sick or have tested positive, we will not report to work and will take the necessary precautions. Yesterday, healthy representatives reported to the house floor,” the statement said.

It said the actions taken by majority leadership were “a result of fear and virtue-signaling.”

“House minority members have been present and ready to work. The fact that some choose not to wear a mask is not a viable excuse to abruptly adjourn or cancel the floor session,” the statement said.

Legislative leaders last month voted to end a policy that required masking, regardless of vaccination status, in legislative facilities and regular COVID-19 testing. The policy now in place makes masks optional, with some exceptions, and ends the testing requirement.

The presiding officers of the House and Senate have authority over their respective chambers and can impose masking requirements within them, said Jessica Geary, executive director of the Legislative Affairs Agency.

Konrad Jackson, an aide to Senate President Peter Micciche, said COVID-19 protocols for the Senate floor are currently optional as case counts continue to be monitored.

Masks are required in the House and Senate Finance committee rooms; those rules were announced this week.

The version of the operating budget that passes the House still must go to the Senate. The state infrastructure budget is also unresolved.

Regular legislative sessions can run up to 121 days, a period that extends into May.

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