JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Alaska lawmakers have agreed to retroactively extend the state’s COVID-19 disaster emergency declaration as part of an effort to maintain state eligibility for food assistance benefits and other federal aid dollars.
The measure, which would extend the declaration through 2021, was passed by the Senate and House Wednesday and was to be sent to Gov. Mike Dunleavy. Adam Crum, the state health commissioner, had told legislative leaders action on the bill was needed by Friday to ensure the state could access additional food assistance benefits for April.
There’s no guarantee a disaster declaration will remain in effect the rest of the year; under the bill, Dunleavy could declare a disaster emergency no longer exists. However, the bill also would give the health commissioner, Crum, the ability to declare a limited public health emergency for such things as vaccine distribution and to support eligibility for federal aid dollars.
The state’s last disaster declaration ended in mid-February. Since then, Dunleavy has supported narrower tools to respond.
The version that passed the House last month did not include provisions providing limited powers to the commissioner. The Anchorage Daily News reported many members of the Senate’s Republican-led majority favored language providing such powers over a disaster declaration. But that idea on its own lacked majority support in the House, where lawmakers favored giving Dunleavy flexibility in case he needed it.
The bill that passed Wednesday was seen as a compromise.
“For some folks in this building, (disaster) is a trigger word. For others, it’s the magic word. I will leave that for you to decide,” Sen. Natasha von Imhof, an Anchorage Republican, said in a floor speech.
The vote in the Senate was 14-6. The House later Wednesday agreed to the Senate version, 25-15.
Jeff Turner, a Dunleavy spokesperson, said the governor would review the bill Thursday. Turner also released a statement saying that Dunleavy has made clear “he no longer believes an emergency declaration is necessary or productive in fighting the virus.” The statement cited the state’s vaccination rates.
It went on to say Dunleavy had asked lawmakers for “pared down legislation that continues the current vaccination plan, allows the acceptance of federal COVID relief funds and ensures that Alaskans with food insecurity can continue receiving enhanced” food assistance benefits.