The equity of emergency funding

What the inaction says about the fairness in Alaska.

Good morning, Alaska! It’s Day 21 of the Alaska legislative session, it turns out the only thing more inevitable than a Mahomes comeback is Brady winning another Super Bowl and the House is still not organized.

It’s been three weeks since a fire destroyed Tuluksak’s only source of drinking water, the community is still waiting for help—any kind of help—from the state, according to a report by KYUK Radio that was published on Friday and republished by other outlets over the weekend. The 300-person village, where about a third of residents have already tested positive for COVID-19, has received donations of bottled water from activists, a gold mining company and even from The Black Eye Peas’ rapper Taboo Nawasha, but the state has been notably missing. Despite outreach from the community’s legislators, the state has reportedly sent no supplies and Gov. Mike Dunleavy has not utilized his disaster declaration powers that could provide up to $1 million for the response without legislative approval. A Jan. 25 update on the effort to provide the community with safe drinking water noted that funding is an issue and a planned replacement of the community’s ruined water purification system—which had lasted for more than four decades, twice the expected age of such a plant—is about three or four years away from being installed and usable.

The state doesn’t appear to be particularly interested, pointing to the private response to provide supplies and the community’s grant application into the Indian Health Service for a permanent replacement (which is the solution that’s three to four years away). The Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management is apparently working on a report to send to the governor’s staff for consideration.

Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, told KYUK that the state’s response raises an issue of equity and that the Alaskans who live in Tuluksak deserve the same access to the state’s help that other communities do. “If any larger community in Alaska was without reliable access to water during a global public health crisis, it is almost certain a disaster would be declared.”

It’s also not the first time that the Dunleavy administration’s handling of disaster funds has become a problem. A week ago, KHNS Radio reported that the community may no longer get $1.4 million in disaster relief funding intended for the community’s response to the December landslides once the administration found that they could spend the money elsewhere. The money, which came out of the state’s CARES Act distribution, had originally gone to Juneau’s Bartlett Regional Hospital to provide psychiatric services in Haines but it more than covered the bill and the hospital returned the money to the state thinking that it would get rerouted to the community. That hasn’t been the case and, again, getting an answer from the state seems be a challenge. According to KHNS, Interim Haines Borough Manager Alekka Fullerton has been trying to reach out to the state to find out what was going to happen. The response was sent, instead, to former Haines legislator and special assistant to the governor Bill Thomas, who then forwarded it to Fullerton. “In the email,” according to the report by KHNS, “legislative liaison Suzanne Cunningham wrote that once Congress extended the deadline to spend CARES Act funds, the $1.4 million was no longer available for Haines.” Fullerton said the explanation was confusing and unsatisfying.

“I think the state said, ‘Wow, we have all this funny money that’s going to expire on December 30 what are we going to do with it? Oh, here’s a great idea! Let’s give it to Haines.’ Then I think once they realized it’s not going to expire, they’re clawing it back thinking that, ‘Wow, there are many other things that if we had a year we would rather spend it on than Haines.’”

Why it matters: The biggest thing that stands out between these two stories is the administration’s refusal to speak directly and candidly with the affected communities. Perhaps there is a reasonable explanation about why the lack of clean drinking water in the middle of a pandemic for Tuluksak doesn’t rise to the level of an emergency declaration or why it was appropriate to pull the rug out from Haines after landslides decimated the community, but instead they’ve had trouble even getting their calls returned. Rep. Zulkosky is right to call it an issue of equity. The administration’s response raises questions not only about how they determine what and who deserves emergency funds, but who deserves a call back.

The pandemic and organization

Alaska has a week left on its pandemic disaster declaration and things are getting increasingly dire between far-right senators’ efforts to block the measure and the House’s continued lack of organization. State officials are warning that a failure to extend the disaster declaration would create a mess given how much of the state’s response from departments down to regulatory boards and local governments are all tied up with the disaster declaration. There’s particular concern about what it’d mean for the state’s vaccination effort, which crossed 100,000 Alaskans with at least one dose over the weekend.

If there was ever anything that might help push the House into an organization—even with a hacked-together power sharing agreement—this is probably it. Still, given how things have played out in the Senate—where a Republican-led organization has given platform to far-right covid deniers who have done nothing but hinder the effort—I’d imagine that there’s a fair bit of skepticism about any agreement that would put the most extreme Republicans anywhere near the levers of power.

Around the web

On today’s legislative agenda

Skimming this week’s schedule, I’ve pulled out some of the interesting stuff below. Find the full legislative schedule here. Senate has a technical session at 11 and the House has a regular session at 11.

Monday, Feb. 8

  • 9 a.m. Senate Education — Commissioner Michael Johnson talks about student enrollment counts and federal COVID-19 relief for education. This is a huge deal for state and local budgets and education. Without help, many districts are facing monumental drops in funding (Fairbanks is considering more than 200 cuts) over drops in enrollment. A big question is whether those drops in enrollment are permanent—whether people are switching to homeschool, for example—or temporary and will rebound once people feel safer about the vaccine.

  • 1:30 p.m. Senate Judiciary — Vaccine liability and disaster declarations. Given Sen. Lora Reinbold’s “I’m not an anti-vaxxer, but…” last week, Dr. Zink’s vaccine disinformation cleanup effort is going to be working overtime.

  • 1:30 p.m. Senate Labor and Commerce — SB56 to extend the governor’s disaster declaration (pending referral), SB 10 by Sen. Begich to extend free or reduced tuition to essential workers and SB 24 by Sen. Wilson to allow corporations to hold virtual meetings. This agenda is largely a microcosm of what’s going on with the Senate right now. The Senate’s schedule anticipated SB56 reaching this committee by today but it’s still wrapped up committee with Senate Majority Whip Sen. Costello saying last week it may not even make it out of committee. Meanwhile, the piecemeal passing of the disaster declaration’s measures is underway with Wilson’s SB24 (just three dozen more of these).