The best laid plans and plexiglass 

On the final day of the 31st Legislature, covid took center stage

Good morning, Alaska! Today’s officially the start of the 32nd Legislature, Anchorage’s plans to return to in-person classes has been soiled by a day of rain and, still, no one is really sure who’ll be in charge of the House (it looks like as I’m just about to hit send that the Senate has organized with a Republican majority). It looks like it could be a while… at least in the House.

Monday marked the final day of the 31st Legislative session, a day that under normal circumstances would have been a largely uneventful day of catching up with various offices, setting up desks and writing inoffensive “It’s the first day of session, I guess” stories. Of course, nothing about this year is normal and Monday had packed agendas in both the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee and the Legislative Council. It’s not just a sign that legislators are concerned that it’s going to be a while to organize but concerned about what that organization might look like, at least that was my takeaway.

The Legislative Council passed several measures aimed at updating and strengthening the building’s coronavirus policies, saving the most impactful measure—a fine for refusing to wear a mask—as the final vote of the session. The measure would implement a fine of $250 for the first violation and a $500 violation for subsequent offenses, with the money to be automatically be deducted from paychecks. While legislators have say over what happens in their offices, the policy would extend everywhere else, including the floor, hallways and committee meetings. 

It capped off a day where legislators—at least the ones in power right now—made crystal clear just how concerned they are about covid-19 and the health of legislators, aides, legislative staff and everyone else who’s allowed in the capitol building. Legislative Council Chairman Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said he’s concerned that some legislative staffers may just walk away if covid’s not being taken seriously, and while discussing whether to allow more than one press member to physically attend floor sessions earlier in the day, Bethel Democratic Sen. Lyman Hoffman called it “a question of life and death.” 

Unfortunately, that’s not everyone as there has already been issues with some Republicans flaunting the mask requirements. All the planning and plexiglass can only go so far when people are refusing to follow the basic health precautions of wearing a mask. 

At one point, the Legislative Council discussed allowing committees to set their own policy on mask—potentially creating a patchwork of rules throughout the building—and that was met with stiff opposition from everyone who spoke with a particularly dire warning from Anchorage Democratic Sen. Tom Begich.

“This will determine for me which committees I’d want to be on. If I’m not chairing a committee but a member of a committee, I have no interest in attending a committee that might vote to compromise my health,” he said. “I supported a masking policy that was consistent across the board and at the very least that masking policy that’s been established for the building ought to set a minimum standard for this. We’ve made a choice when it comes to the press, we’ve made a choice when it comes to the public and I’m deeply concerned that we’re absolutely weakening a policy that we’ve established.”

The idea was promptly nixed, but what if the Legislative Council looked a different? 

I think that beyond the budget, the dividend and everything else, Monday made clear that covid safety stands to be a particularly critical issue as the Legislature considers its organization. An organization that puts covid-skeptical Republicans in power could mean a fast unraveling of all these precautions as well as the stick to enforce them. As legislators consider the negotiations, will they consider the health of the aides and legislative staffers in the building?

The vote on the masking policy is telling and is as follows:

YEA: Begich, Giessel, Hoffman, Stedman, von Imhof, Edgmon, Foster, Stutes, Stevens

NAY: Johnson, Thompson

Yep, that’s Fairbanks Republican Rep. Steven Thompson, widely regarded as the Republicans’ only palatable candidate for House Speaker, voting against enforcement of the mask mandate. He didn’t speak to his vote during the debate, but the vote itself sends a clear message. 

A series of tubes

The Legislative Council also approved a $67,000 contract to implement remote voting for floor sessions. It will take time—and a two-thirds vote in each chamber—to implement the system, which Legislative IT manager Tim Banaszak said should be really only used in the most dire of emergencies.

The main issue addressed here is the difficulty it would take to conduct a remote floor session (which, again, would still need to be approved) through voice votes. This system would allow legislators from a secure connection to be able to link up with the big boards on the floor and cast votes.

House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, no stranger to overseeing belabored floor sessions, said a remote floor session over the phone would “be like getting on your hands and knees and crawling out to the airport to catch a plane.”

Capitol security

From the blog

·      Legislature approves audit of ‘tortured’ Alaska Cares Act Program — The Legislative Budget and Audit Committee approved a fast-track audit of the botched Alaska Cares Act Program as the state prepares for a second round of payments. A sticking point during the discussion is whether the audit, which seeks to identify the recipients of the funding, is necessary. 

·      In reversal, Legislature will allow one press member into floor sessions—After a lot of back and forth, the Legislative Council sort of reversed course on its plan to block press from physically attending floor sessions. The plan is to allow just one member at a time as decided by the Capitol Press Corps to sit in the gallery. 

From the web

·      Gov. Dunleavy has appointed Acting Attorney General Ed Sniffen to attorney general, finally filling the hole left behind by former Attorney General Kevin Clarkson’s resignation. Sniffen’s most high-profile action so far has been the botched effort to sign Alaska on to Texas’ seditious lawsuit trying to overturn the election. According to this report by the Anchorage Daily News, Democrats see a fight brewing. 

·      Rep. David Eastman’s decision to attend the capitol riot earlier this month—where he claims he didn’t see any violence—and continued efforts to double down on the lies that laid the groundwork for the insurrection aren’t being forgotten. Several groups are calling for his resignation and while he didn’t attend the protests, Sen. Tom Begich suggests anyone lying about the election (which goes well beyond just Eastman) ought to be censured. More from Alaska Public Media: Progressive groups call for removal of Rep. Eastman and other Alaska lawmakers who challenged presidential election results