JUNEAU — After a testy hearing that saw a Alaska state senator questioning the state health commissioner’s constitutional loyalties, the administration of Gov. Mike Dunleavy has twice declined to testify in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee led by Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River.
On Monday, Reinbold said on the Senate floor and in an email to fellow legislators that she has canceled two hearings because the administration refused to testify in person about public health mandates intended to curtail the COVID-19 pandemic.
A spokesman for Dunleavy said Reinbold will be able to ask questions of administration officials during a Tuesday hearing of the Senate committee on Health and Social Services. Reinbold does not chair that committee and cannot set its agenda.
Over the weekend, Reinbold posted on social media that “transparency, accountability, and basic information looking at the impacts of the disaster declarations are being denied or delayed at this time by Dunleavy.”
In the last Judiciary Committee hearing, Reinbold criticized Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum and heard testimony from a Harvard professor who co-authored a paper opposing broad lockdowns and school closures.
Reinbold has repeatedly said she believes the dangers of COVID-19 have been exaggerated and that Alaska’s public health restrictions have done more harm than good. In social media posts, she has discouraged Alaskans from getting the COVID-19 vaccination and spread conspiracy theories involving Bill Gates and the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Reinbold declined an interview request on Monday.
Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau and a member of the judiciary committee, said it’s not clear to him whether there’s growing tension between the administration and one senator or tension between the administration and the Legislature as a whole.
At the heart of the tension is Senate Bill 56, which would extend Alaska’s COVID-19 state of emergency through Sept. 30 unless canceled earlier.
“If this turns into an anti-disaster-declaration exercise, we’re in for some potential fireworks,” he said.
Since late last year, the governor has extended the state of emergency through a series of 30-day emergency orders because the Alaska Legislature was either unable or unwilling to call a special session to extend an emergency it authorized in March 2020.
Kiehl said there’s reason to question whether those extensions were legal.
Now that the Legislature is in session, SB 56 will determine whether the emergency — and accompanying health mandates — will continue.
SB 56 was not referred to Reinbold’s committee, and some in the Legislature have questioned whether Reinbold is overstepping. Legislative rules state that the Judiciary committee’s job is to monitor “the programs and activities of the Alaska Court System, the Department of Law, and the legal review of bills referred to it for that purpose.”
“I’m not seeing the close Judiciary hook to the labor commissioner or the medical examiner,” Kiehl said, referring to two people invited by Reinbold to testify.
When asked why the administration declined to testify, Dunleavy spokesman Jeff Turner said SB 56 “was referred to the Senate Health and Social Services, Labor and Commerce and Finance committees. The administration is prepared to present to the committees it was referred to within the guidelines of the Alaska Legislature’s Uniform Rules.”
In her email to the other members of the Judiciary committee, Reinbold said that “while the mandates primarily involved Health and Social Services, the Department of Law approved the disaster declarations and mandates.”
SB 56 will be heard at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Health and Social Services Committee. Reinbold is a member of that committee and will have a chance to ask questions, Turner said.
Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, serves on the judiciary committee and is vice chair of the Health and Social Services Committee.
“I look forward to getting the questions that were asked in the judiciary committee answered when the commissioner and his team appear in the Senate HSS committee,” she said.
She said it’s also possible that the Judiciary committee could take up as-yet-unwritten legislation “that provides for checks and balances by the legislative branch in regard to the governor’s mandates.”