JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — The Alaska House abruptly adjourned Tuesday after ratifying plans for using more than $1 billion in federal coronavirus relief aid, one day after reconvening to take up the issue.
The Senate passed its own ratification bill but stayed in session to consider the House version, which aides said is identical. A vote is expected Wednesday, as Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration moves ahead with plans for distributing funds, including community and small business aid.
Payments to communities could begin as early as Friday once signed grant agreements and other required documents are received, the state commerce commissioner, Julie Anderson, said in a letter to the Senate Finance co-chairs. It wasn’t immediately clear how many communities had responded.
A small business relief program is in development, said Glenn Hoskinson, a special assistant in the department.
Senate Rules Chair John Coghill, a North Pole Republican, said when the House sends a bill to the Senate, it needs a committee hearing. His committee heard the measure Tuesday morning, after the House adjourned.
House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, an independent from Dillingham, said the House adjourned because it was done with its work. Edgmon said the House lacked support to take up other measures.
“Once we got the ratification bill through, our work was done. That was our commitment to coming down here in the first place,” he said.
The House adjourned as the Senate was debating a resolution that would have allowed members to attend by video conference a session dealing with matters related to COVID-19 if the Legislature physically could not meet for reasons related to the coronavirus.
Senate President Cathy Giessel said she and Edgmon authorized the purchase of 10 cameras for video conference use. Some already have been set up in legislative information offices, she said. Under the resolution, a lawmaker participating remotely would need to be at such an office unless they got permission otherwise.
Both chambers needed to pass the resolution, Giessel said, adding she went forward with a vote to let the House know the Senate would like to have those tools available.
Video conferencing still could be an option going forward, she and Edgmon said.
The cameras cost $25,000 and came out of the House and Senate budgets, said Daniel McDonald, Senate majority communications director.
A lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the federal coronavirus relief spending plans prompted lawmakers to return to Juneau on Monday. It was the first time the full Legislature had reconvened since recessing March 29 amid coronavirus concerns.
Sen. Lora Reinbold, an Eagle River Republican, was the lone no vote on the Senate ratification bill. She said she worried it gave the executive branch too much power over the purse.
The House voted 38-1, with Rep. David Eastman, a Wasilla Republican, dissenting.
Dunleavy had submitted plans for distributing aid funds to the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee. A process set out in law allows a governor to submit to the committee plans to accept and spend additional federal or other program funds on a budget item. But concerns were raised that some of the items fell outside the scope of what can go through that committee process.
The committee nonetheless agreed to more than $1 billion in spending plans. Legislative attorney Megan Wallace, in a memo to the committee’s chair earlier this month, recommended the Legislature ratify the spending if it supported the actions.
Giessel said she believes the language in the ratification bills “closes all the loops that are being challenged by the lawsuit.”
Attorney Joe Geldhof filed the lawsuit on behalf of resident Eric Forrer, who Geldhof said plans to continue to contest the underlying constitutional issues raised by the case.
This story has been corrected to show that the House and Senate passed respective bills, not that the Legislature had ratified the plans.