Alaska House passes disaster extension, sends bill to Senate where narrower legislation could emerge

An Alaska Native woman stands up and speaks in a open room with others at their desks
Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, speaks during a House floor session in the Capitol in Juneau on March 16, 2020. On Friday, she spoke in favor of House Bill 76, to extend Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s COVID-19 disaster declaration. The bill passed 22-15. (Skip Gray/KTOO)

On Friday, the Alaska House of Representatives passed a bill to extend Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s COVID-19 disaster declaration. The bill would make the extension retroactive to Feb. 14, when the declaration expired. 

Dunleavy now opposes the extension, saying Alaska no longer needs to be in a state of emergency. That’s a change: Dunleavy proposed the extension bill earlier this year, before the declaration expired. 

But now, he wants a more limited set of provisions, not a full extension. Senate leaders have written a revised version of the bill in line with his request. 

The House debated the measure, House Bill 76, for more than an hour during a Friday floor session. 

Bethel Democratic Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky noted the statewide COVID-19 threat level remains high. And she said the effect of new, highly contagious variants of the coronavirus in the state is unknown.   

“The simple fact is, House Bill 76 reliably and efficiently provides Alaska the tool and resources needed by our businesses, hospitals, nonprofits and local governments,” she said.

Hospital leaders have said mandatory COVID-19 testing of air travelers is necessary, but that program ended in February when the disaster declaration expired. 

But Dunleavy maintains extending the declaration would undermine Alaskans’ trust in the state government and harm the upcoming tourism season. 

Anchorage Republican Rep. Tom McKay said the state declaration led to local abuses. 

“Using the emergency declaration as cover, our Anchorage interim mayor and Assembly continuously and callously ignored constituents and abused their powers to destroy the Anchorage economy,” McKay said.

Anchorage Acting Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson and Assembly members have said restrictions would help the economy recover by decreasing the spread of the virus.  

Alaska House Speaker Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, on the dais at center, listens to the debate on House Bill 76 on Friday in the Capitol. The House passed the bill, which would extend a statewide disaster declaration issued by Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy. (Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO and Alaska Public Media)

The vote to pass the bill was 22-15. Fairbanks Republican Rep. Bart LeBon voted in favor of it, citing a provision that limits the liability of businesses. He was the only member to cross caucus lines. Anchorage Republican Rep. Sara Rasmussen, who doesn’t belong to a caucus, voted no. 

The House voted on amendments to the bill Thursday. Only one passed: It would seek to prohibit Alaska from spending any federal COVID-19 funding on abortions that aren’t mandated by state law. The Alaska Supreme Court has already ruled state laws to prohibit Medicaid spending on abortion unconstitutional, since the laws treat abortion differently than other medical procedures. 

The bill now goes to the Senate. If the Senate passes legislation closer to what Dunleavy prefers, the House could agree to the changes, or a committee with members from both chambers could write a compromise bill that could become law. 

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Andrew Kitchenman is the state government and politics reporter for Alaska Public Media and KTOO in Juneau. Reach him at akitchenman@alaskapublic.org.