Peter Segall | Juneau Empire                                 Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, speaks about ratifying Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s appropriations of federal funds Tuesday while Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, listens.

Peter Segall | Juneau Empire Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, speaks about ratifying Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s appropriations of federal funds Tuesday while Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, listens.

Representatives leave Capitol while Senate finishes business

Senate members must wait for the next legislative day to vote

A comment attributed to Lawyer Joe Geldhof said Juneau man Eric Forrer was not going to challenge constitutionality of the Legislature’s ratification of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget requests. Forrer had directed Geldhof not to seek an injunction trying to block the expenditures of funds without proper authorization. They are dropping the equitable claim for relief in the form of an injunction and continuing on with the constitutional issue. The Juneau Empire regrets the error.

Senators are waiting to approve a final version of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s appropriations of federal COVID-19 relief money until Wednesday morning because of constitutional rules.

Both chambers of the Alaska State Legislature passed identical bills Tuesday morning, ratifying the governor’s proposals for distributing federal coronavirus relief funds. The Legislative Budget and Audit Committee had approved the governor’s distributions last Wednesday, but a lawsuit questioning the legality of that action brought lawmakers back to Juneau on Monday.

Senate Finance Committee co-chair Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, introduced the Senate bill saying the money was meant to help Alaskans during a time of “unprecedented economic pain.”

[Lawmakers dive back into work]

“A record number of Alaskans are out of work,” Stedman said. “The longer we wait, the fewer will have jobs to return to. These funds need to go out immediately, preferably yesterday.”

While both bodies held near-unanimous votes to pass their bills, the House acted faster, leaving the remainder of the work to the Senate. Shortly after voting on House Bill 313, House members voted to adjourn “sine die,” or indefinitely, and by noon Tuesday several representatives had left the Capitol.

Senate Democrats meet with reporters at the Alaska State Capitol after a vote to ratify Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposals for allocating federal relief money. Several Senate Democrats had warned lawmakers would have to return to Juneau in order to be in compliance with the constitution. Tuesday, May 19, 2020. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

Senate Democrats meet with reporters at the Alaska State Capitol after a vote to ratify Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposals for allocating federal relief money. Several Senate Democrats had warned lawmakers would have to return to Juneau in order to be in compliance with the constitution. Tuesday, May 19, 2020. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

However, senators had to remain, taking up the House bill in the Rules Committee in a meeting that took less than 15 minutes. Most of the legislative work was done by noon, but the state constitution doesn’t allow for bills to be introduced, referred to committee and passed by both bodies in the same day.

Earlier Tuesday morning, senators voted 19-1 to ratify the governor’s proposals, with only Eagle River Republican Lora Reinbold voting against. After a short discussion on the floor Tuesday morning. Reinbold told her fellow senators she felt deep empathy for the people of Alaska who were suffering under what she called “unconstitutional mandates.”

But, she said, simply ratifying the governor’s revised program legislative requests, or RPLs, would be handing the Legislature’s appropriation power over to the executive office.

Sens. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, and Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, said they shared Reinbold’s concerns about giving up legislative power, but considering the circumstances, they weren’t going to hold up money any longer.

“I wish this wasn’t the only option presented to us,” Shower said. “But time is the enemy.”

The House also voted for ratification 38-1, with only Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, voting against the bill. Following the votes, lawmakers said they’re confident the ratification bills would satisfy the issues raised by the lawsuit.

“The legal guidance that we saw said this suffices,” said Rep. Sara Hannan, D-Juneau. “For today, I’m not worried.”

Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, said Tuesday afternoon she expected Wednesday’s floor session scheduled for 8:30 a.m. to be brief, but added with a laugh she was wary of making predictions.

Constitution and crisis

Eric Forrer of Juneau on May 14 submitted a lawsuit against the Department of Revenue Commissioner Lucinda Mahoney for allegedly violating the state constitution by allowing the governor to make an appropriation through the RPL process. Not long after Forrer submitted his lawsuit Thursday, lawmakers were instructed to return to Juneau by Monday.

The RPL process allows the governor to add money to certain programs while the Legislature is not in session. Dunleavy tried to avoid bringing lawmakers back to Juneau by proposing distributing over $1 billion in federal relief money using the process.

However, RPLs can only add money to programs which already have the legal ability to get federal funds, making RPLs appropriate for some programs, such as school-related programs which already receive federal money annually, but inappropriate for state programs like small business loans or revenue sharing.

Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, and Senate Finance Committee co-chair Natasha Von Imhof, R-Anchorage, held a press conference with reporters to discuss the status of the ratification bill and how federal funds could be used, on Tuesday, May 19, 2020. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, and Senate Finance Committee co-chair Natasha Von Imhof, R-Anchorage, held a press conference with reporters to discuss the status of the ratification bill and how federal funds could be used, on Tuesday, May 19, 2020. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

Legislative lawyers had warned the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee about potential legal challenges, but the governor and the majority of lawmakers agreed RPLs were the fastest way to distribute the much needed federal funds.

Forrer and his lawyer Joe Geldhof argued that even in the midst of an emergency, the state constitution cannot be circumvented, and called for lawmakers to come back to Juneau to make the appropriation according to the constitution.

When lawmakers met in Juneau Tuesday, they passed a bill to ratify the governor’s distributions, not to appropriate the money themselves. Legislative leaders who crafted the bill said the chose ratification because it satisfies all the issues raised by Forrer’s lawsuit, without getting the Legislature bogged down in partisan politics.

“Going through an appropriation process would have been similar to the budget process,” Giessel said. “It would have been a 30-day process. Always the goal was to get the money to Alaskans as soon as possible.”

[Lawsuit brings lawmakers back to Juneau]

Giessel said lawmakers had been careful when drafting their ratification bill, using a 1987 state Supreme Court case concerning RPLs, State of Alaska v. Fairbanks North Star Borough, as a guide.

Tuesday morning Geldhof told the Empire Forrer had instructed him not to pursue an injunction against the Legislature’s ratification, even as they found lawmakers’ actions insufficient.

“It is obviously inconsistent with the normal constitutional requirements,” Geldhof said. “They didn’t make the expenditure. They’re ratifying nothing, and they think that’s good enough. There is an open legal question.”

But even with the less-than-satisfactory outcome, Geldhof said Forrer didn’t want to get in the way of the distribution of money people are desperately waiting for.

Geldhof said Forrer was willing to accept Tuesday’s action over the approval of RPLs last week despite considering both to be unconstitutional because Forrer did not want to intervene in the business of the Legislature.

“We got them here, got them into session, he’s satisfied that they convened, he’s satisfied that they acted,” Geldhof said.

Although Geldhof said no legal action would be taken regarding the ratification bill, the lawsuit would be kept open.

“We’re not going to have that argument in the next day or two,” Geldhof said. “We will sort out what they did, the constitutionality of it, down the trail.”

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnoEmpire.

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