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Alaska Legislature

Veto fights and dividend struggles sank Alaska Legislature’s attempt to speed pandemic aid

The Alaska State Capitol is seen Monday, May 20, 2019 in Juneau. (James Brooks / ADN)

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JUNEAU — As it confronts the coronavirus pandemic, the Alaska Legislature has been unable to leave its other problems behind.

Last week, a legislative panel approved Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s billion-dollar plan for spending federal coronavirus aid. Two days later, a Juneau man filed a lawsuit that could tie up that aid. Lawmakers are now scrambling back to Juneau to nullify the lawsuit.

It’s a problem that could have been avoided.

The governor proposed a version of his plan April 21. The Legislature’s own lawyers warned as early as April 30 that if the plan was approved by a committee and not the full Legislature, it was vulnerable to a lawsuit.

To avoid legal action, the Legislature’s attorneys said, lawmakers needed to reconvene in Juneau and approve a bill containing the governor’s plan.

Why didn’t that happen?

Legislative leaders feared that a revived session would lead to an extended debate over the merits of a second Permanent Fund dividend payment and budget vetoes by Dunleavy. Lawmakers also worried about their own health, saying the danger of COVID-19 was too great.

“This could not be taken up in isolation,” said Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, explaining the Legislature’s thinking.

The governor’s plan would have been written into a spending bill, but spending bills can be amended.

Giessel said she believes the aid bill would have “mushroomed” or “Christmas-treed,” with lawmakers adding amendments like hanging ornaments on a Christmas tree.

Supporters of an increased Permanent Fund dividend were ready to make their idea the first ornament.

“There were a lot of people who wanted to increase the Permanent Fund dividend,” said Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak.

Previous attempts to boost the dividend, including efforts to make payments using the traditional formula in state law, failed narrowly. (In 2017, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that formula is not mandatory.)

Since the start of the pandemic, economists have said that direct payments to Alaskans will help alleviate the economic effects of public health measures. Some Alaskans have begun holding rallies to urge a second dividend.

But reluctant lawmakers say there’s a drawback: The state is forecasting a billion-dollar deficit this year, and money spent on a second dividend would increase the state’s budget problems next year.

Stevens and other lawmakers said there was consensus on paying this year’s dividend sooner, but there was no agreement on a second payment, and the debates could have been protracted.

Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, has supported the traditional dividend, and she said there was another issue at play. Some lawmakers wanted to reconsider money vetoed by Dunleavy from the state budget.

A statue of William Seward near the Alaska Capitol is shown outfitted with a mask on Friday, April 24, 2020, in Juneau. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)

Speaking Monday in committee, Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage, said she believes the Legislature had the ability to focus on the aid alone and approve it in a few days. Other Democrats have made similar comments.

Hughes said there’s no way.

“That doesn’t happen! You’d be lucky to get it done in two weeks, and it could even go to the end of the month or even into special session,” she said.

With those two points of contention, “the Legislature doesn’t have the votes to call themselves into session,” said Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, last week.

After the lawsuit was filed, that changed.

The House and Senate have now scheduled meetings beginning Monday.

Giessel said lawmakers were concerned at the beginning of the month that travel could spread the coronavirus. Now that the Dunleavy administration has lifted restrictions on travel within Alaska, there’s less resistance to meeting in person. (Some resistance remains. A Kenai Peninsula lawmaker compared proposed public health measures at the Capitol to Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews.)

Late Thursday, Giessel’s office sent a text to senators telling them to buy plane tickets and get to Juneau before Monday.

Legislators said they expect a straight up-or-down vote on this week’s committee action. That vote is expected to involve a piece of legislation, but not a spending bill, so it could not be easily amended.

Joe Geldhof, the attorney who filed the lawsuit, said he’s reserving judgment.

“If they have a chance to vote, it’s probably good enough,” he said.

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