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Alaska Legislature

Alaska legislators say they’re preparing to reconvene in early May

FILE - In this July 8, 2019, file photo, Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, left, and Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, speak to members of the media. (Michael Penn/Juneau Empire via AP, File)

The Alaska House and Senate are planning to reconvene in early May, potentially by videoconference, in order to approve spending plans for more than $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus aid.

There’s no doubt that the Legislature will accept the money, but lawmakers aren’t fully certain how it will be spent, and some members of the House’s Republican minority plan to push for a second Permanent Fund dividend payment to provide aid for individual Alaskans.

Debate on that second dividend was curtailed when the House and Senate passed a state budget and left Juneau amid pandemic restrictions.

“I believe that the public has clearly indicated that the need for that money is now. That would potentially be on the table,” said House Minority Leader Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage.

Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, and Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, have been noncommittal. Their priority, they said, is making sure that federal aid is distributed as quickly as possible. The federal government is expected to give the money to the state later this week or early next week.

Dunleavy said Tuesday that he doesn’t believe the Legislature needs to reconvene because sections of the coronavirus aid bill say where the money should go.

“I think we’re OK,” he said.

Some lawmakers disagree, saying that under the state constitution, they control how the state accepts and spends money.

“What we know is that coming Friday and Monday, we’re going to start getting the resources from the federal government, and … it’s pretty clear that we don’t have a clear idea of anything,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, D-Anchorage.

“It seems to me that the key for us is to figure out what authority is necessary for the governor to spend it,” he said.

Before answering that question, lawmakers need to figure out whether they will meet in person in the Capitol or by teleconference. Edgmon and Giessel said planning is underway for both scenarios, but nothing has been decided.

Meeting by teleconference isn’t allowed under legislative rules, and changing those rules requires a two-thirds vote or specific legislation.

In order to change the rules, lawmakers might have to meet in person, defeating the pandemic-prevention purpose of a teleconference.

Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, was among the lawmakers who urged the adoption of teleconference rules before the legislature left Juneau.

“Most other state legislatures have some provision on the books,” he said. “I think it’s certainly appropriate that we should have it on the books.”

Some lawmakers said the Legislature could meet by teleconference and change the rules retroactively, but Eastman and Pruitt said that could leave the legislature open to a lawsuit.

“Because there’s so much money at stake and there’s so many people affected … I think you’d be ripe for a lawsuit if we were to flat-out not follow the rules on changing the rules,” Pruitt said.

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