JUNEAU — A state legislative committee postponed approval of federal coronavirus aid Wednesday as a legal dispute stalemated progress.
In his Wednesday evening update on the pandemic, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy urged the committee to approve the remaining elements of a $1.57 billion aid package funded by the federal CARES Act. That money is slated for various state agencies as well as local governments and Alaska’s small businesses.
“We need this money in the hands of these entities now. We’re asking that the Legislature, the LB&A committee, move quickly on this,” he said.
The House-Senate Legislative Budget and Audit Committee normally makes state budget decisions when the Legislature is not in session. Chaired by Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, it can increase existing budget line items if the state unexpectedly receives a federal grant.
What it can’t do, legislative attorneys have said, is create new budget line items. They reinforced that point in a meeting of the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
That’s a problem right now because Dunleavy’s plan for spending aid calls for federal money in new places. As originally drafted, the governor divided the federal aid into 11 pieces. Six, including aid to schools and mass transit, were approved Friday. Two transportation-related pieces are considered relatively uncontroversial but have run into drafting problems.
The remaining three pieces involve more than $560 million in aid to cities and boroughs, $290 million in small-business aid, and an empty bucket for $100 million in expected fisheries aid. None of those three originally included a line item for federal money.
Legislative lawyers say new legislation is needed and that it would be illegal to approve the money without a vote of the entire Legislature. Tuck agrees, and he said a vote of the full Legislature is necessary to approve the governor’s plan.
The governor’s attorneys disagree, however, and Dunleavy said he believes Tuck’s committee is the fastest way to approve the money.
Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, said on Friday that she agrees with the governor’s stance and hopes Tuck’s committee will approve the aid.
With the dispute ongoing, the committee canceled plans to take up pieces of the governor’s proposal. It’s now scheduled to meet Monday.
Tuck acknowledged the need to act quickly but said the state would be open to a lawsuit if his committee approves the money on its own. Any legal action, he said, could mean months of delays if the issue is tied up in the courts.
The best solution, he said, is to simply have the Legislature reconvene in Juneau and approve the money.
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