by Sen. Tom Begich and Rep. Chris Tuck
Before the Legislature recessed on March 29, we passed both a substantive relief bill for the medical and economic needs of Alaskans and one of the earliest budgets in the state’s history. It was good work that was accomplished through bipartisan efforts in the House and Senate for a necessary response to the economic reverberations of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the Legislature left the Capitol Building with work left incomplete on a wide array of issues and with no secure plan for how we move out of the economic crisis we now face.
There are substantial constitutional questions over how the Governor intends to spend federal dollars without legislative approval, and the state lacks a long-term plan for how Alaskans will work and live in a post-COVID-19 world. It’s time we went back to work to complete these tasks.
Understandably, there is a concern by both the majorities in the House and Senate over a reconvened session getting mired in Permanent Fund Dividend politics, divisive posturing, and distractions that remove our focus from the crises we face. There is a simple way to do this, but it requires a commitment and perseverance from all legislators – admittedly, not always an easy task to accomplish. But both the constitutionality of how we appropriate these funds and the need to plan for our future are issues we must address now. We cannot find ourselves trying to fix things retroactively when we have the chance today to proactively prepare Alaskans for the future while also addressing this pandemic.
The most important of these issues before us is to address Governor Dunleavy’s requested Revised Programs – Legislative (RPLs) appropriation changes so the federal COVID-19 funds are legally received and spent in Alaska.
An RPL is a streamlined process to accept additional funds for programs that are already established and appropriated by the Legislature. The law is clear: if there is no prior appropriation, the Legislature must perform its constitutional duty to appropriate and establish the programs necessary to receive the federal funds.
The Legislature can only do this appropriation or establishment of new programs in person. To not do this means we are violating the Constitution and our own legislative rules and leaving the Governor as the sole appropriator. So, either we violate the Constitution or we place individual Alaskan lives at risk. Neither is an acceptable outcome. At the very least, we must come together and resolve this issue because businesses are hurting, communities are suffering, and Alaskans need relief and a clear and unified direction from their government.
We propose the following to simplify the process of reconvening with a limited agenda that ensures we follow our constitutional obligation and put in place some simple elements to help us plan for our economic recovery:
1) Convene the House and Senate Finance Committees in Anchorage to develop an appropriation bill in consultation with the majority and minority in both bodies that addresses the RPLs proposed by the Governor, finalize the capital budget, and provide a substantial general obligation bond to address Alaska’s new construction and deferred maintenance needs;
2) Reconvene the Legislature in Juneau;
3) Pass these appropriation bills out of the Finance Committees;
4) Bring them before the full House and Senate for a final vote; and
It is that simple. We must set aside all other legislation, no matter how deserving, in order to quickly and decisively get back together to provide Alaskans certainty and a clear direction forward. Hard decisions are part of our work to maintain the health, safety, and economic well-being of Alaskans. If a majority of us in the Senate and the House agree to this approach, we can get back to Juneau, complete this essential work, and provide certainty to all Alaskans.
Time is running out, and we must act now.