Alaska Legislature

Alaska Gov. Dunleavy rejects House speaker’s request to cancel special session due to high COVID-19 rates

JUNEAU — Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Friday rejected a request by Alaska House Speaker Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, to cancel an upcoming special session of the Legislature.

In a Friday morning letter to Dunleavy, Stutes said she has “great concern” for lawmakers and staff who will gather in Juneau starting Monday, citing the state’s ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

“The governor is not canceling the special session,” Dunleavy spokesman Jeff Turner said.

Dunleavy has called legislators into special session to consider a larger Permanent Fund dividend, changes to the formula that pays the dividend, and a fiscal plan to pay for that larger dividend in the future.

Statewide, Alaska is enduring the worst period of the COVID-19 pandemic to date. Its recent per-capita case rates are by far the highest in the nation. Alaska hospitals have reported operating under extreme strain, and multiple facilities have shifted to crisis standards of care.

After leaving the last special session, Sen. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, was diagnosed with COVID-19. It wasn’t clear whether he had been infected in Juneau.

In her letter to the governor, Stutes said, “You have wisely safeguarded the health of departmental employees by directing them to work from home until further notice, yet you ask that 60 legislators plus staff return to Juneau to conduct in-person proceedings.”

“Including partisan and support staff, the health of hundreds of people will be put at risk to address items that we have yet to gain consensus on,” she said.

Stutes said legislative committees can still meet outside of a special session to discuss a fiscal plan.

Most members of the House’s coalition majority, led by Stutes, have opposed the plan offered by the governor. They have said that because the Permanent Fund is the state’s primary source of revenue, overspending now results in service cuts or tax increases later.

In an interview Thursday, Dunleavy said he doesn’t agree with that argument, noting the Permanent Fund gained 30% in value during the previous fiscal year.

“You never hear that when it comes to taking the PFD and cutting it severely out of the hands of children and elders, that it has a detrimental effect, especially in the environment that we’re experiencing today, with supply chain disruptions, inflation, uncertainty and people whose hours were cut during the pandemic,” Dunleavy said.

House Minority Leader Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, said she did not know about Stutes’ letter in advance, “and I would like to say that I’m surprised, but I’m not surprised.”

“Obviously, the situation with COVID is real, but I don’t think that stops the Legislature from doing the work that it should be doing for the state of Alaska,” she said.

Stutes’ letter did not address the political aspects of the special session; it only spoke to COVID-19 concerns for lawmakers and legislative employees.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, said the letter was a “bit of a surprise” to him and that he didn’t see it before it was sent.

He said some Democratic senators are concerned about COVID-19 and that it may be best to work unofficially on a fiscal plan, rather than formally in a special session.

Juneau has the highest COVID-19 vaccination rate of any large city in Alaska, with 70% of the city’s population having been vaccinated. Excluding ineligible children, the city’s vaccination rate exceeds 81%.

The city is also experiencing its highest COVID-19 case rate since the pandemic began. The city-owned hospital had five of 28 beds available as of Friday morning.

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