A Senate Finance Committee committee substitute for House Bill 76 would have the expired disaster declaration extended to Dec. 31, 2021.
Offered by Finance Co-Chair Sen. Click Bishop’s office, the new version of HB 76 also strips out a House-inserted prohibition against using federal disaster relief money for elective abortions.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy was on record Feb. 14 saying he doesn’t need or want the Covid disaster to be extended, but he does want certain aspects of the legislation passed in separate bills — things that enable telehealth, or cutting red tape for procurement.
The current version of HB 76 also gives new powers to the commissioner of Health and Social Services. The bill says the governor cannot extend the disaster declaration unless the HSS commissioner certifies that there is neither an outbreak of Covid nor an imminent threat of an outbreak of Covid-19.
How many cases classify as an outbreak? Two.
Epidemiologists define an outbreak of the new coronavirus as “two or more laboratory-confirmed Covid-19 cases among workers at a facility with the onset of illness within a 14-day period, who are not epidemiologically linked, do not share a household, and are not a close contact of each other outside of the workplace during standard care investigation or contact tracing.”
With this language, the disaster declaration would effectively be taken out of the governor’s hands, and also out of the hands of the commissioner of HSS, since it’s unlikely that there will be that few cases of Covid-19 in a 14-day period during the coming year.
In addition, according to the new version of the bill, any federal Covid-19 relief money could not go through the “RPL process.” That’s when the governor uses the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee to approve appropriation changes as conditions require. This aspect of the bill means that for any type of change in spending the federal funds — big or small — the only way the governor can redirect funds is if the governor calls the Legislature back into special session (at a cost of $125,000 per day).
The practical effect is that the Legislature would be in rolling special sessions in Juneau all the way through Dec. 31.
Although the committee substitute for HB 76 presumes all members of the Senate Finance majority understand what is being offered, it’s possible that they don’t fully grasp that they could be in Juneau for much of the rest of the year because with $2 billion coming from the federal government, there are likely to be adjustments that need to be made. Amendments were due at 5 pm Monday.
As for removing the abortion prohibition language, that particular prohibition was the only amendment approved by the House of Representatives that was offered by a Republican — Rep. DeLena from Palmer. Her amendment passed at great cost to her as a legislator; it angered minority Democrats such as Rules Chair Bryce Edgmon, who threatened that she’d never get another piece of legislation through his Rules Committee.
The bill, should it pass into law, would be retroactive back to Feb. 14. The governor would have to sign it or veto it; a veto would almost certainly mean the legislative session would be further delayed.