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Alaska Legislature

Alaska Legislature in ‘race to finish’ budget work before coronavirus arrives in Juneau

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JUNEAU — In a quiet room within the Alaska State Capitol on Friday night, members of the state Senate’s finance committee introduced their $4.5 billion proposal for the state’s operating budget.

With that proposal now on the table, the Alaska Legislature is in a “race to the finish," said Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka and co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee.

Legislators now hope that by Friday, they will be done with the state operating budget, the capital budget, provide coronavirus emergency funding and set the amount of the 2020 Permanent Fund dividend.

“We won’t be here two weeks from now,” Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, said Friday.

Several legislators said they feel as if they’re working against a hidden clock. If someone in the Capitol is diagnosed with coronavirus, many lawmakers will isolate themselves. If lawmakers isolate themselves, it will become impossible to finish the budget and other critical legislation.

“Clearly, time is not our friend,” Stedman said.

The nightmare scenario for Alaska lawmakers is what happened in Georgia.

After a state senator there was diagnosed with a confirmed case of COVID-19, all 236 Georgia lawmakers and dozens of staffers were told to isolate themselves for two weeks. Work has stopped.

Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, and other lawmakers have urged the Alaska Legislature to pass a law allowing state legislators to cast their votes remotely, by phone or computer, but legislative attorneys have said that the state constitution does not allow that.

With time limited, lawmakers are moving to delay otherwise-needed votes. On Saturday, the House planned to pass a law eliminating the requirement that the governor’s appointees must be confirmed or turned down in a joint session of the Legislature.

Lawmakers don’t want to crowd themselves together for that session.

When lawmakers finish work on the budget and associated bills, Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, said the plan is for a “soft adjournment.” Lawmakers would not meet but would reserve the ability to reconvene in order to take additional action if required by the pandemic.

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