JUNEAU, Alaska — Alaska lawmakers, facing a looming deadline and disorganization in the House, are asking Gov. Mike Dunleavy to issue a new disaster declaration to aid the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic despite legal questions surrounding his authority to act.
Dunleavy, a Republican, was criticized for issuing successive orders between November and January, when lawmakers weren't meeting, with legislators from both parties questioning the legal underpinnings of his actions. Under state law, a disaster emergency proclamation is not to remain in effect more than 30 days unless extended by the Legislature.
Megan Wallace, a top attorney for the Legislature, in a September memo requested by Senate Democratic Leader Tom Begich, said no statutory provision authorizes a governor to issue a second declaration for the same emergency.
Dunleavy, in at least two prior orders, cited new phases of the response in issuing them, such as growing case counts and the anticipated availability of vaccines. Lawmakers did not challenge those orders in court.
The latest order is set to expire at midnight on Sunday, and health and emergency officials have warned that a failure to extend it could restrict the state’s ability to distribute vaccines and set back progress made in combating COVID-19. Adam Crum, the state health commissioner, also told lawmakers expiration of the state disaster declaration could cost the state $8 million a month in expanded food stamp benefits.
The Senate passed a resolution Friday urging Dunleavy to issue a “new, narrowly defined” declaration of up to 30 days.
Some senators have said they're looking at ways the Legislature could provide other tools to the administration outside a disaster declaration. The Senate has been hearing a Dunleavy bill that originally sought to extend the existing order through September, a period of time many lawmakers were uncomfortable with. That timeframe was cut to mid-March during the committee process.
The bill is scheduled for another Senate committee hearing on Monday.
Senate President Peter Micciche, a Soldotna Republican, said even if the Senate had passed the bill, there was no path for it being passed in the House before the order expired. The House, before the Senate vote Friday, recessed until Monday and was still working on putting together a majority organization following the election of Rep. Louise Stutes as speaker on Thursday.
Earlier this week, 20 House members, who have been part of a bipartisan coalition, including Stutes, sent Dunleavy a letter expressing support for continuing the declaration for another 30 days.
Micciche told reporters he considered it unlikely someone would sue “considering the unprecedented nature of what's at risk for Alaskans.”
In a floor speech, he pleaded with lawmakers to support the resolution.
“I implore you to consider us sending a formal message to the governor, to please, declare a short-term, new health declaration while it gives the Senate the time to determine what we need in the future in legislation to hopefully get off this emergency declaration track," he said.
A message seeking comment was sent to a Dunleavy spokesperson.
Wallace, in a separate memo requested by Begich, dated Thursday, said while nothing in the Alaska Disaster Act explicitly prohibits the governor from issuing successive states of emergency, doing so “infringes on the legislature's exclusive power to extend a disaster emergency.”
Begich switched his vote on the resolution from no to yes, giving it the minimum number of votes needed to pass. The Anchorage Democrat said he believed the better option would have been for the Senate to act on the Dunleavy bill instead. He also said he was conflicted.
He earlier this week said whether he liked it or not, Dunleavy “should issue a new disaster declaration while the legislature is unable to act.” He said he stood by his prior comments and reiterated similar sentiments in a floor speech.
Becky Bohrer, The Associated Press