The House Chamber at the Alaska State Capitol is closed after lawmakers recessed from their session early due to COVID-19. Lawmakers could come back to Juneau soon if they can’t come to an agreement with the governor’s office on how to appropriate $1.5 billion in federal CARES Act money. Monday, March 30, 2020. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire File)

The House Chamber at the Alaska State Capitol is closed after lawmakers recessed from their session early due to COVID-19. Lawmakers could come back to Juneau soon if they can’t come to an agreement with the governor’s office on how to appropriate $1.5 billion in federal CARES Act money. Monday, March 30, 2020. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire File)

Depending on how meeting goes, lawmakers could find themselves back in Juneau

A legislative committee meets Wednesday to discuss gov’s plan

The Legislative Budget and Audit Committee will meet Wednesday to discuss whether to approve the governor’s proposal for allocating roughly $1.5 billion in federal COVID-19 relief money.

Some lawmakers have questioned whether the revised program legislative requests, or RPL process, is the best way to get funds to Alaskans.

“It depends on the money,” said Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau. “There are some places where the RPL is the right way to legally put the money to work, there are other places where the RPL process doesn’t fit, it’s outside the law.”

Kiehl said there are strict rules concerning when LB&A is allowed to act on behalf of the whole Legislature, and if the committee appropriates money in a legally dubious way it could lead to litigation that would tie the money up in court.

“There are constitutional questions about the appropriations,” Kiehl said. “We need to get the federal money to Alaskans without the threat of legal action.”

The only way to do that is to have the Legislature reconvene and make specific appropriations for the money. If that were to happen and lawmakers worked only on the federal money and nothing else, Kiehl said the funds could be appropriated within five days of the Legislature meeting.

But others said the money just needs to get out there, and recipients can find ways to work within whatever rules come with it.

[Cities aren’t sure when to expect relief funding]

“The most expedient way is through the RPL process,” said Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka. “It’s a quicker process that will be beneficial to citizens all across the state.”

This appropriation was just a step, Stedman said. He expects future legislation to come from the federal government with additional funding.

However, even if the Legislature were to appropriate the funds, that doesn’t solve the problem most municipalities are facing, which is lost revenue. Cities have seen their revenue bases collapse and money appropriated by the state can’t be used to fill holes in a government budget. Or, at least not yet.

Kiehl said he had conversations with Alaska’s Congressional delegation, “to get the federal government to loosen the rules, so taxes don’t have to get cranked up or services decimated.”

Stedman too, said the Legislature would continue to push for expanded use of federal dollars.

At a press conference on Monday, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said he expects additional guidance from the U.S. Treasury on how CARES Act money can be spent.

“We’re hoping gets clarified sooner rather than later,” Dunleavy said. “States are asking for more flexibility with the funding. We are certainly asking for more flexibility in the funds that we have.”

Considering the massive losses to businesses already suffered and the lack of a tourist season, Stedman said it was time to put politics aside and move as quickly as possible.

“Juneau is going to get hit hard, along with Ketchikan and Sitka,” Stedman said. “Just dealing with the (lack of) major cruise ships. We need to have a quick and efficient process and we need to work for the benefit of all Alaskans.”

The LB&A Committee meets Wednesday at 1 p.m. and can be watched through the Legislature’s website, http://w3.akleg.gov/index.php#tab5.

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

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