Rep. Jennifer Johnston, R-Anchorage, gets her temperature taken as she enters the Alaska State Capitol on Monday, May 18, 2020. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)

Rep. Jennifer Johnston, R-Anchorage, gets her temperature taken as she enters the Alaska State Capitol on Monday, May 18, 2020. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)

Lawmakers, governor express interest in extending disaster declaration

It’s set to expire on Nov. 15.

This article has been updated to include a response from House Speaker Bryce Edgmon and Senate President Cathy Giessel.

With the state’s COVID-19 disaster declaration set to expire mid-month and cases of the illness climbing, legislative leaders and the governor’s office exchanged letters expressing interesting in extending the declaration.

In a letter sent to Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, and House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, the governor’s chief of staff Ben Stevens states Gov. Mike Dunleavy wants to know if the Legislature will call itself into session to extend the declaration. In a response, Giessel and Edgmon stated they will poll lawmakers soon and want to work toward a solution.

“The purpose of the letter is to find out what lawmakers want to do,” Stevens said in a statement shared with the Empire shortly before 5 p.m. Friday. “Are they willing and able to call themselves into special session and extend the deadline before it expires on November 15, which only they have authority to do.

“If the legislature does not convene to extend the deadline, Governor Dunleavy has two options to consider,” Stevens continued in the statement. “Call an immediate special session or allow SB 241 to expire and issue a new declaration as allowed under state law.”

[Dunleavy: No reason to panic, but there is reason for concern]

The public health disaster declaration, which was issued on March 11, began a unified command structure among the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and the Department of Public Safety and allows state departments to react quickly in COVID-19 response, according to the office of the governor. It also allows the DHSS commissioner to exercise state statutes related to isolation and quarantine measures and makes it easier for the state to purchase supplies, hire temporary staff and access disaster relief funds.

On March 28, the Legislature passed a bill extending that declaration to Nov.15. Stevens’ letter notes the version of the bill, Senate Bill 241, passed by the Legislature was initially introduced by Dunleavy. The initial version would have extended the declaration through March 12, 2021. A likely complication to a November special session are the results of this summer’s primary election.

In August, Giessel and other prominent Republicans, including members of the House Majority Caucus, in the state Legislature lost to primary challengers.

In a response letter signed by both Giessel and Edgmon, the legislative leaders said they “stand ready and willing” to work toward extending the disaster declaration.

They stated they had not polled other lawmakers yet, but given Dunleavy’s interest they would do so with the clear goal of reaching 40 votes needed for a legislative session.

“Our overriding interest and motivation is the safety and wellbeing of the Alaskan people,” Giessel and Edgmon stated in the letter. “If the 40 votes cannot be achieved, we are keenly interested in having a discussion with you about other avenues to address the important measures in SB 241 that are about to expire.”

Stevens acknowledged, in a statement, that a legislative session carries risk in light of “dramatically increasing” cases of COVID-19 throughout the state.

“The Governor is rightfully concerned that even a brief special session in Juneau could pose an unacceptable risk to lawmakers, their communities, legislative staff and Juneau residents,” Stevens said. “The legislature is still working out protocols to prevent an outbreak when it convenes for its regular session in January.”

• Contact Ben Hohenstatt at (907)308-4895 or bhohenstatt@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.

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