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Alaska Legislature

Alaska’s COVID-19 response becomes top topic in attorney general’s hearing

Alaska Attorney General-designee Treg Taylor testifies on Wednesday, March 24, 2021 in front of the Alaska Senate Judiciary Committee at the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau. (James Brooks / ADN)

JUNEAU — Attorney General Treg Taylor’s confirmation hearing before a state Senate committee Wednesday focused heavily on Alaska’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, a leading topic for the committee chair whose criticism of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s approach prompted Dunleavy to temporarily withhold members of his administration from appearing before the committee.

Taylor told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that the state disaster act, more typically used for an event such as an earthquake, is a “clunky tool” for a long-running pandemic. He also said it provides “broad authority” for the governor to respond and said if legislators had concerns with how Dunleavy wielded the powers, it’s something they could look at, in possibly proposing changes to the law.

Under the law, a disaster declaration is not to last longer than 30 days unless extended by the Legislature. Lawmakers last March authorized a disaster declaration related to the pandemic until Nov. 15. Dunleavy issued three new, 30-day orders after that order expired, when lawmakers were not meeting. At least two of those orders referred to different aspects of the pandemic response, such as the vaccine rollout.

Taylor argued that given the changing circumstances and the powers in the law, Dunleavy had the authority to issue additional declarations -- a view that was challenged by an attorney for the Legislature in a memo last year. Lawmakers did not take the issue to court.

Taylor also noted lawmakers can call themselves into a special session. But he said he did not think continually issuing new declarations was the best approach and said he hoped lawmakers and Dunleavy could work together to fix what he sees as a hole in the disaster law.

There was finger-pointing Wednesday over why things played out as they did with the disaster declarations, the last of which expired in mid-February.

Sen. Lora Reinbold, an Eagle River Republican and the committee’s chair, placed blame with Dunleavy. She said she was acknowledged as a “no” vote on the bill extending the declaration to Nov. 15, though as Sen. Shelley Hughes noted later, Reinbold, like Hughes, was not present for that vote.

“When you don’t vote, it’s ... registered as a no,” Reinbold said. The official record does not work that way; votes are not ascribed to lawmakers who are not present for the vote. Reinbold and Hughes were among three senators marked as excused for that vote.

State Sen. Lora Reinbold, left, speaks to Attorney General Treg Taylor, foreground, during a confirmation hearing for Taylor on Wednesday, March 24, 2021, in Juneau, Alaska. Also shown are Sen. Mike Shower, second from left, and Sen. Jesse Kiehl. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)

Sen. Mike Shower, a Wasilla Republican, said he thought the Legislature should have been engaged. “We did not do things we could have done ... if we had a leadership body at the time that was engaged and wanted to do that,” he said, adding later that the Legislature “took ourselves out of the game.”

Then-Senate President Cathy Giessel, a Republican, and then-House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, an independent, wrote Dunleavy in early November asking him to call a special session to address the disaster declaration. They said they lacked the votes for lawmakers to convene themselves.

There also was a spike in COVID-19 case numbers in Alaska last fall.

Hughes, a Palmer Republican, said she thinks the legislative and executive branches bear responsibility. She said she looked forward to working with Taylor on possible changes to the disaster law.

Taylor’s appointment as attorney general is subject to legislative confirmation. He appeared before Reinbold’s committee more than a month after Dunleavy in a scathing letter accused Reinbold, a fellow Republican, of misrepresenting the state’s COVID-19 response and said members of his administration would not participate in hearings she led.

Dunleavy spokesperson Jeff Turner last week said the administration and lawmakers had a lot of work to do this session and that the administration would “work with any committee chair to provide the information they need.” Turner said it was Dunleavy’s expectation that committee meetings “will be conducted in a professional manner with the goal of accomplishing the business of the state.”

Turner also said Dunleavy stood by the letter.

Reinbold told Taylor she wanted to work with him to get the letter retracted. She said it contained what she considered to be unsubstantiated claims.

“I don’t know if I can ask you to do that or not. You don’t have to answer that question, OK? But as attorney general for all Alaskans, it’s a letter I’d like retracted,” she said.

“Sen. Reinbold, understood,” Taylor said.

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