Rolling the dice

Alaska enters a world of uncertainty after allowing the disaster declaration to expire. Meanwhile, there's still plenty of uncertainty for the unorganized House.

Good morning, Alaska! It’s day 28 of the 32nd Alaska Legislature and the House is still not entirely organized.

Two big things to watch this week: Alaska’s covid-19 disaster declaration expired Sunday morning, making Alaska just the second state to let its declaration run out. The expiration opens up a world of unknowns for Alaska’s pandemic response and vaccination efforts, while Gov. Mike Dunleavy says everything will probably be fine. Meanwhile in the Legislature, where division led to the fumbling of the legal route to extending the disaster declaration, the big question is going to be how/if/when a majority in the House comes together.

Rolling the dice

After his administration warned dire consequences if the disaster declaration does expire and a divided Legislature went to unprecedented lengths to urge him to take unilateral action, Gov. Mike Dunleavy refused to unilaterally (and illegally) extend the disaster declaration as he had done unilaterally (and illegally) twice before. “We believe that we have what we need right now to get through this,” he said on Sunday, calling it “a new beginning for Alaska.” The biggest, most-obvious change is the end of the state’s testing and quarantine requirements for arriving travelers. There’s still not a solid answer on just what the end of the disaster declaration will mean for the state’s vaccination response, which has so far been the most successful in the country in terms of vaccinating its population. The state’s disaster declaration powers allow the state to direct scarce resources, like the vaccine, testing supplies and personal protective equipment, and now it’s not entirely clear what will happen going forward.

“We feel like we will be able to continue distributing vaccines to Alaskans at least through the end of March,” Division of Public Health director Heidi Hedberg said on Sunday, according to a report by KTOO.

Also wrapped up are hundreds of regulations that were either passed or suspended as part of the state’s response to the pandemic. Many of those regulations—like expanded access to telemedicine and curbside alcohol pickup—were directly tied to the disaster declaration. There’s also an $8 million boost to the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program from the federal government that Alaska stands to lose out on if the disaster declaration isn’t renewed for March.

While the governor has expressed optimism Alaska’s pandemic response moving forward, it’s a gamble that a majority of the Legislature, Alaska’s health care providers, local governments and the business community wanted to avoid as they mounted a pressure campaign as it became clear that the Legislature wouldn’t be able to get the extension across the finish line. That the governor’s own administration had been warning against allowing the disaster declaration to expire is hard to square with the governor’s optimism. At the heart of the bet is that Alaska’s comparatively good trends will continue with the state ceding its leading role to local communities that are often much more limited in what they can do. We’ll find out.

The House unorganized

The House is set to return today at 2 p.m. for what ought to be an eventful floor session. The big task ahead for the House is the assignment of committee positions, which is typically negotiated as part of forming a majority. But, as of writing, the House still doesn’t have a solid majority even though it elected Kodiak Republican Rep. Louise Stutes, the House Coalition’s lone Republican, as permanent House Speaker on a 21-19 vote last Thursday. Rep. Kelly Merrick, R-Eagle River, crossed over in support of Stutes but hasn’t committed join the House Coalition.

Whoever jumps first will have the best leverage in dictating the organization, but for Republicans it’ll carry political risk with a party machine intent on purity and for House Coalition members it’ll carry the policy risk of empowering far-right Republicans and their agenda akin to what we’ve seen happen in the Alaska Senate.

One big thing to keep in mind with organization is the chamber’s efforts to urge Dunleavy to extend the disaster declaration. The House Coalition, of which Stutes is a member, has consistently been united in its response to the pandemic and all 20 of its members signed on a letter urging the governor to extend the disaster declaration. The House Republicans issued a similar statement late Friday but only 15 of their 20 members signed on. Missing were extreme-right Reps. David Eastman, Ben Carpenter, Christopher Kurka and George Rauscher, and Rep. DeLena Johnson. This split on the disaster declaration underlines the division among the Republicans and raises questions about what a hypothetical majority-Republican will do when it runs into politically loaded issues like the PFD or the budget. One of the Republican organizing proposals has been to sideline the most “extreme” members of each party to form an evenly split coalition.

It’s hard to say what’ll happen and most in the House have kept the cards close to the chest. Today’s anticipated vote on committee assignments will be big.

History will judge

Oh, and there was an historic vote over the weekend.

On today’s agenda

9 a.m. Senate Education — SB 19 by Stevens to extend the special education service agency; SJR 8 by Stevens calling for action to complete the land grant to the University of Alaska; SB 42 by Hughes, an omnibus education bill with reading standards for K-3, a new program creating a system for districts to create and sell their virtual courses to other districts, and an update to teacher certification; SB 8 by Begich, another omnibus education bill that got some traction last session aimed at improving reading.

Canceled 9 a.m. Senate Finance — SB 56 by Gov. Dunleavy extending the emergency declaration.

1:30 p.m. Senate Judiciary Committee — Human Rights Commission confirmation hearing. This is the commission that Anchorage Assemblymember Jamie Allard was on until she went and defended Nazi license plates

1:30 p.m. Senate Labor and Commerce — SB69 by Revak to exempt renewable energy plants from some regulations

2 p.m. House Floor Session — A late-in-the-day session prime for the unexpected.

3 p.m. Senate Resources — SB 22 by Revak, repealing the sunset date of the intensive management hunting license surcharge. The intensive management fee on hunting licenses—a $10 fee for residents and $30 for nonresidents—was put in place in 2016 as part of a rework of fees charged on hunting and fishing. This bill would make the fee, which has raised about $4 million every year since creation, permanent.