A floor session of the Alaska House of Representatives was canceled on Monday, March 28, 2022, after some lawmakers refused to wear face masks in the chamber. House Speaker Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, reinstated the masking rule for the floor after several members of the body tested positive for COVID-19. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

A floor session of the Alaska House of Representatives was canceled on Monday, March 28, 2022, after some lawmakers refused to wear face masks in the chamber. House Speaker Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, reinstated the masking rule for the floor after several members of the body tested positive for COVID-19. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

COVID cases, mask debates delay House

Lawmaker absences push back timeline for budget bill.

COVID-19 cases in the Alaska House of Representatives are once again causing delays as some members of the body refused to comply with reinstated masking rules in the chamber.

House members met for a previously scheduled floor session for just under four minutes Monday morning before recessing to the call of the chair after some members refused to wear face masks. Some House members have tested positive for COVID-19 recently and in response House Speaker Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, reinstituted masking requirements while in the House chamber.

“As you all know by the email you received today there is a masking requirement in the chamber,” Stutes told lawmakers at the start of Monday’s session. “We have members that have chosen not to comply with that policy until they choose to comply with that policy the House will stand at recess.”

The House was scheduled to hear three bills Monday but eventually rescheduled its floor meeting for 10 a.m. Tuesday.

Five members of the House were absent Monday, Reps. Sara Rasmussen, R-Anchorage; Liz Snyder, D-Anchorage; Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage; Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, and Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel.

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Spohnholz said in a statement she tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday.

“I am grateful to be fully vaccinated, boosted and experiencing only moderate symptoms,” Spohnholz said. “I expect to be cleared and back on Thursday as the House addresses the operating budget on the floor.”

On the floor Monday, Reps. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski; Chris Kurka, R-Wasilla, and David Eastman, R-Wasilla, were not wearing masks. On Facebook Monday, Eastman wrote mask requirements interfere with a lawmaker’s ability to fulfill their constitutional duties.

“There is no constitutional requirement to wear a mask or constitutional authority to prevent a fellow legislator from voting because they are not wearing a mask,” Eastman said.

In March 2021, a House floor session was eventually canceled after Kurka — who is currently running for governor — refused to remove a face mask bearing the phrase, “government mandated muzzle.”

In this Empire file photo, Rep. Chris Kurka, R-Wasilla, leaves the chambers of the Alaska House of Representatives on Friday, March 19, 2021, after an hour of delays concerning the wording on his mask. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire file)

In this Empire file photo, Rep. Chris Kurka, R-Wasilla, leaves the chambers of the Alaska House of Representatives on Friday, March 19, 2021, after an hour of delays concerning the wording on his mask. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire file)

In a statement Monday afternoon, Stutes said the masking was being temporarily restored while the House deals with an active outbreak of COVID-19.

“Let me be clear — I am as tired of wearing masks as anyone,” Stutes said. “But while we are dealing with this outbreak in the Capitol, we have an obligation to look after one another’s wellbeing, especially those of us who are immunocompromised, while still upholding our responsibility to Alaskans to pass the budget in a timely manner.”

COVID-19 mitigation policies at the Capiol complex are decided by the bicameral Legislative Council, which last amended the policy in February.

“Legislators and legislative staff must isolate as directed by health authorities and cooperate with contact tracing and quarantine efforts,” the policy says. “The Legislature will follow CDC guidance for individuals who test positive and the ‘test to stay’ protocol for those individuals who are a close contact with a person who tests positive.”

Current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines only recommend a five-day quarantine for those exposed to COVID-19 who are not up-to-date on their vaccinations. The CDC recommends fully vaccinated people only isolate if they are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.

The House Finance Committee is finalizing the state’s operating budget bill, according to committee co-chair Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome, but with absences in the House, it’s unclear when the bill might be introduced on the floor. Lawmakers had planned on introducing the budget to the floor on Monday, Foster said.

“Now, with everything that’s going on with COVID, it’s looking like possibly like all this gets pushed off until later, and I’m not sure when,” Foster said.

Alaska’s legislative sessions are meant to last 90 days and are allowed 121 under the state constitution. Day 90 this year is April 17, and the constitutional end of session is May 17.

The Legislature’s only constitutional requirement is the passage of the state’s budget, but last year it took lawmakers more than one special session to completely finalize the budget process. Amid a contentious legislative session, lawmakers last year were unable to pass a budget before the 121-day deadline. Even when the budget did pass, the House failed to get the two-thirds vote necessary to trigger the effective date clause, potentially threatening a government shutdown.

The House Majority Coalition has a slim lead of 21 lawmakers out of a total of 40, enough to pass a budget bill, but not enough to secure the effective date clause.

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

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