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Alaska Legislature

Larger unemployment benefit and essential-worker scholarship fund advance in the Alaska Legislature

Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage, gestures on Monday, May 17, 2021 at the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau while speaking in favor of a proposal to temporarily increase the stipend paid to unemployed parents. (James Brooks / ADN)

JUNEAU — The Alaska House and Senate took separate actions Monday to provide aid to Alaskans affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The state Senate voted 12-7 to set aside $2.5 million per year for four years to provide free or subsidized scholarships for essential workers and some people laid off during the pandemic. The scholarships expire in 2025 and are funded with federal COVID aid. In the House, legislators voted 22-18 to temporarily boost the unemployment benefit paid to people with children or caring for a disabled adult. That temporary boost would expire at the end of the year.

The Senate bill will not take effect unless approved by the House and Gov. Mike Dunleavy. The House bill needs the approval of the Senate and the governor.

Both measures were among several items considered in the Legislature on Monday as lawmakers hurry to finish business before Wednesday, the last day of the Legislature’s 2021 regular session.

While lawmakers will continue working on the state budget after Wednesday in a special session, other bills must be set aside until next year unless they pass both House and Senate before then.

Scholarships for essential workers

The scholarship fund is the idea of Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, D-Anchorage and is inspired by a similar program in Michigan.

Speaking on the Senate floor, he said the intent is to assist essential workers “and provides a thank you to them” for their work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Wasilla, spoke against the idea, and six other Republicans voted against it as well. She said most essential workers didn’t lose their jobs during the pandemic and some made large amounts of money during the public health emergency.

As currently written, scholarship recipients must have lived in the state for a year, have earned a certain grade-point average in high school, and meet other criteria for enrollment. Through an amendment from Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla, the program is also open to some private schools and people attending trade schools.

Small boost for family unemployment

The House narrowly approved a proposal from Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage, to increase the amount paid by the state to unemployed parents and people caring for a disabled adult. The stipend would increase from $24 per week per child to $75.

Spohnholz said about 30% of Alaskans collecting unemployment have dependents.

The bill was proposed well before a decision by the Dunleavy administration last week to cut unemployment benefits, and Spohnholz said it is unrelated, but the cut makes it more needed.

Most House Republicans cited that action before voting against Spohnholz’s proposal. Rep. Kevin McCabe, R-Big Lake, said Alaskans need to get back to work “and build our economy.”

Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage, spoke strongly in support of the bill and criticized her colleagues for “debating a piddly $75 benefit while we’re sitting here collecting $300 per diem”.

The final vote was decided when two Fairbanks Republicans, Bart LeBon and Steve Thompson, voted in favor. Rep. Josiah Patkotak, I-Utqiagvik, voted against it. The vote was otherwise along majority/minority caucus lines, and independent Republican Rep. Sara Rasmussen, R-Anchorage, voted against it.

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