House Bill 76, extending the governor’s emergency powers, faces a Senate debate, amendments, and vote on Wednesday. If Must Read Alaska sources are correct, it could be a long day. The bill faces as many as 50 amendments in the Senate.
House Bill 76 was offered by Gov. Mike Dunleavy back in January, and with no action taken by the Legislature, his emergency powers expired Feb. 14. He’s been able to continue to lessen regulatory burdens and have a successful vaccination distribution program only because he has a “live bill.” If HB 76 dies, the entire vaccination program crumbles, for starters. If Covid spikes with the summer tourism season, he won’t have the ability to redirect resources due to the bureaucratic red tape involved in medical responses.
There are a few in the Senate who absolutely opposed to the term “emergency powers,” because these powers seem to go on forever during the pandemic, and they appear as a threat to civil liberties. Some amendments will be along the nature of “end this Covid charade and get back to normal.”
The Senate, a more functional body than the House, is trying to achieve the art of the possible with HB 76, keeping very limited powers for the governor and giving him the ability to end the disaster.
What the governor needs, actually, are just four specific powers, but Alaska’s emergency powers laws are written as “all or nothing,” which is why there is so much contention between lawmakers.
The powers Dunleavy needs are boiled down to:
- An easing of procurement regulations around vaccines
- Ability to provide immunity to those giving vaccines. Many are volunteer health professionals)
- Being able to house Covid-positive people in non-medical settings like hotels to help them isolate
To understand where HB 76 came from, one needs to wind the clock back to last year. The governor had emergency powers through Nov. 15, powers granted by the Legislature over a year ago.
But the Legislature couldn’t or wouldn’t call itself back into special session to extend that emergency power, and so the governor did two 30-day extensions to get Alaska through the worst of the Covid spikes over the winter, and into the legislative session, when lawmakers could act. Winter Covid spikes were worrisome as hospitals started feeling the pressure and vaccines were not yet available, as they are widely available today.
But although the Legislature has now been in session for 100 days, the House and Senate are still wrangling over the details of what it means to have emergency powers in this new year.
Complicating the matter is that once the governor files a bill, he cannot take it back. At this point, HB 76 is owned by the Legislature to mold how it wishes. This means the governor’s emissaries to the Legislature must keep an eye on the bill and try to help shape it into something that will benefit Alaska, but also assure Alaskans their civil liberties are protected. Ultimately, the governor could be handed a terrible bill that he might veto.
While the Senate debates HB 76, it appears the House Speaker may delay Wednesday’s floor session to “the call of the chair,” until the Senate completes its work on this critical piece of legislation. After that, the bill will either be passed to the House for concurrence or go to a conference committee to hammer out differences between the amended version expected from the Senate.