After signing bill to continue flow of federal COVID-19 relief to Alaska, Dunleavy ends state disaster declaration
The governor signed House Bill 76 into law on Friday morning
FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - House Bill 76, touted by lawmakers as providing tools vital to Alaskans during the COVID-19 pandemic, was signed into law by Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Friday, according to his office. The governor then ended the state’s emergency declaration with a signed proclamation, effective immediately.
“Alaska is in the recovery phase where an emergency declaration is no longer necessary,” Dunleavy said in a prepared statement from his office. “Our systems are fully functioning with vaccine distribution, adequate testing, and health care capacity.”
Among the policies enacted and continued through the bill are: $8 million in monthly federal food assistance Alaskans impacted by the pandemic will continue to get; the state will remain eligible for future federal aid and reimbursement for Federal Emergency Management Agency costs; operation of off-site testing and vaccination sites will be able to stay legally operational, as will waivers to care for patients telephonically; and health care providers, including mental health experts, will continue to have access to assets to help ensure telehealth services.
Dunleavy added it is important that the state’s focus remains on getting the economy back on track, as well as welcoming summer tourism and tourists.
“I am confident in our state’s future as we move forward,” he said.
His signing of HB76 followed the House — which had initially passed a version of the bill in March — voting 25-15 late Wednesday to accept changes passed by the Senate.
The signing by Dunleavy also preceded Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum’s enactment of a public health order on Friday, directing the department and its staff to continue efforts in fighting the coronavirus, including but not limited to continuing to distribute vaccine, providing testing supplies to urban and rural communities, conducting ongoing disease tracking and surveillance and maintaining federal benefits.
Essentially, all the pieces and signings on Friday work together to get to a final result.
“Certain provisions of the bill go away,” Crum said of the actions following the signing of HB76 in an ECHO forum Friday afternoon, adding that most others remain “in play.”
“So we’ve been working on this now for two-and-a-half months, trying to move this forward,” he said, noting the initial disaster declaration went into effect on March 11, 2020, with several subsequent declarations to follow, including when the Legislature was out of session. “Throughout that, we were using the disaster declaration just as a tool. Even in the interim ... we were very specific about the tools we needed, and started refining how we needed to do this to continue the response.”
Particularly from a funding standpoint, there was severe urgency in getting HB76 passed before April 30; if it did not get signed into law, several benefits from the federal government to Alaska would’ve expired. Thus, the Senate powered through making 41 amendments, working through the bill earlier this week, according to Crum.
Some lawmakers, however, disagree with the termination of the disaster declaration and worry that it could cause more harm than good if it turns out it was removed too quickly.
“We saw success in working with the Senate to bring a piece of legislation that we could get across the finish line, that included such critical elements like an extended disaster declaration,” Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, said on Friday, noting that she was proud of the work that was done. “What I’m concerned about is preemptively ending a disaster declaration amidst an ongoing, highly-evolving global pandemic that could have real consequences in Alaska.
“And those consequences aren’t unknown consequences,” she said. “Those consequences are the health and lives of Alaskans.”
House Speaker Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, had stated earlier this week that the teamwork demonstrated by the House and Senate working together do at least “prove that the Legislature is ready to tackle difficult issues head-on.”
“Working together, we created a better bill than we started with,” she said in a prepared statement from the Alaska House Coalition, “and passed policies that promote public and economic health. I thank my colleagues for setting politics aside.”
Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, said that he, too, is pleased with the way the Legislature worked together to get the final bill to the governor. On his end, he was happy about the result of the actions taken Friday.
“Today was a good day. It’s been a long process,” he said in an interview Friday. “We started back in March on, how do we thread the needle, how do we support Alaskans yet still move to normalcy? And I think Alaskans are ready for that.
“I feel very good about the way it was executed,” he continued. “Alaskans should feel secure that the support will be in place, however, we are moving to an open Alaska with an economy that’s firing on all cylinders.”
Dunleavy’s team had previously expressed support of the legislation and the benefits Alaskans would receive from it passing. During the ECHO, Crum also noted many Alaskans’ negative response to the term “disaster declaration,” and the need to find solutions that would benefit all.
“This became something to where people would automatically have a visceral response to it,” he said. “And when we really evaluated where we are at — is this the same situation we were in in November, December? It absolutely is not.
“We’ve definitely changed the situation,” he continued. “Being under disaster declaration, knowing that there’s looming powers of authorities out there, this is something — we just want to show Alaskans that we are being heard. We understand where we are at.”
The state could still enact a disaster declaration at any point in the future, if it is determined that conditions warrant such action.
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