The State of Alaska received two disbursements from the federal government this week, with instructions to get it out quickly, fairly, and as equitably as possible to address the economic disaster created by COVID-19.
The Dunleavy Administration has a plan in place to make sure 45 percent of the $1.25 billion that came in goes directly to local governments, as required by the CARES Act, that $300 million is used to help struggling Alaska businesses, particularly in coastal communities, and that the rest of the COVID-19 relief funds are stage-gated to help the state survive before the deadline to expend the funds arrives in December. The State Department of Health and Social Services has seen its budget tapped heavily, and will need some reimbursement. The Department of Labor has had to staff up to process the unemployment claims of the 60,000 Alaskans suddenly out of work.
But Senate President Cathy Giessel and other leaders in the Alaska Legislature today are polling members to see if the House and Senate can get enough members show up in Juneau in the next week or the week following, so they can put a stop to the Dunleavy plan to issue the money beginning May 1, and start their own plan for disbursing the COVID-19 disaster money.
According to some state budget experts, they’re on a fool’s mission. The Legislative Budget and Audit committee has the spending plan from the governor and can quickly give him the go-ahead to simply hit the send button and get the money to the municipalities. Is the Legislature prepared to sue him to stop him from disbursing the funds, MRAK sources asked.
In the Senate Majority’s own explanation of COVID-19 disaster funding, the majority admits that the governor has the authority to get the money out — “as needed to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and offset economic losses.”
What would the legislators do differently? It is possible they want to try again to fund items the governor vetoed in the regular operating budget — things like more funding for ferries and public broadcasting, for example. But with 60 legislators, it’s anyone’s guess how that would turn out, or how long it would take to come to an agreement.
Also tricky for the Legislature is that if they convene in Juneau, the governor may pressure them to pay out the remainder of last year’s dividend — and he’ll have the people of Alaska squarely on his side.
This time, he’ll also have the business community — landlords, utilities, and others who are not able to collect remittances due to the actions of SB 241, which put in provisions that don’t allow for collections, repossessions, disconnections, or evictions. The business community is clamboring for the Legislature to release the Permanent Fund dividend. There are some heavy-hitters in that business sector who are not too happy with the legislative majority over its withholding of the $1,000 stimulus check to Alaskans.
And finally, with a 20 percent unemployment rate and people’s pocketbooks empty, there are a lot of Alaskans who suddenly have a lot more time to take part in the political process, and a lot more motivation to do so.
Meanwhile, the governor has asked the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee to act quickly — by April 29 — so that he can distribute the funds starting May 1. The game’s afoot.