COVID-19 disaster declaration deadline looms
JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Ahead of a Sunday deadline, the Alaska Legislature is debating whether to extend the state’s COVID-19 disaster declaration and for how long.
A Senate committee passed Senate Bill 56 on Tuesday afternoon with Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, as the only no vote. The bill needs to pass through another two Senate committees before heading to the Senate floor and then onto the House of Representatives.
As amended, it would extend the disaster declaration for 30 days instead of seven months as proposed by the governor.
Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, introduced the amendment to shorten that time frame, saying that will give lawmakers time to understand how to give the Dunleavy administration the tools it needs to monitor and manage COVID-19.
She explained that she wants to get rid of the declaration overall, but that “we would have had a problem” if the declaration was allowed to expire on Sunday without those tools being in place.
Health care providers have testified that the declaration is essential for telehealth, vaccine distribution and COVID-19 testing at airports.
Kati Capozzi, the president and CEO of the Alaska Chamber of Commerce, said on Tuesday that the declaration is not about controversial mandates and that it gives businesses “stability and predictability” during the pandemic.
The governor’s office has said that Gov. Mike Dunleavy will not issue another declaration with the Legislature in session.
On Tuesday, the governor took to social media to clear up some misunderstandings about the declaration: it does not close schools or businesses and it does not make the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory.
“There is no real downside to us extending the declaration,” said Preston Simmons, the CEO of Providence Health & Services. “The facts are that folks are mainly arguing about the things that are under local control, and not related to the state declaration.”
Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, said on Friday that the Senate will meet its deadlines to pass legislation related to the disaster declaration.
The House could be a roadblock. It remains unorganized, meaning it is unable to pass bills.
Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, said there could be a workaround. A plan is in its early stages, but the idea is that the House could use some formal mechanism to essentially agree with the Senate that the disaster declaration needs to be extended until it organizes, possibly giving the governor legal cover to issue another disaster declaration.
Edgmon, the House speaker for the past four years, said the House could not organize, stand up committees and pass a bill before Sunday’s deadline. Discussions have gone on with the Legislature’s attorneys, and the details are being worked out for an alternative approach that could involve sending a letter signed by lawmakers to affirm the Senate’s vote.
“I think there is a way we can do that,” Edgmon said.
Rep. Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, said she supported extending some parts of the disaster declaration but didn’t support others. She had heard about the plan discussed by Edgmon but was skeptical about it.
“At this particular point, I think we need to be really careful, it’s a slippery slope when we start doing business without an organization,” Tilton said. “Our best deal would be to get organized and follow the structure of the Legislature.”
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