The chamber of the Alaska House of Represenatives was empty on Wednesday, March 30, 2022, after floor sessions in the body were canceled as three Republican lawmakers refuse to comply with masking requirements reinstated amid an outbreak of COVID-19 among House members and their staff. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

House cancels floor sessions until next week

Tensions over masking cause delays

Floor sessions for the Alaska House of Representatives have been canceled until next week as some Republican lawmakers refuse to comply with temporarily reinstated masking requirements in the House Chamber.

Several lawmakers and their staff tested positive over the weekend, and on Monday, House Speaker Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, informed members mask requirements were temporarily being reinstated. But Republican Reps. Ben Carpenter, Nikiski; Chris Kurka, Wasilla, and David Eastman, Wasilla, refused to wear masks on the floor of the House leading to an abrupt cancellation of Monday’s session. Floor sessions have been scheduled for 10 a.m. every day this week and since Monday all have eventually been canceled amid continuing refusal by those lawmakers to wear masks.

A session was canceled for the third day on Wednesday, and later the House Majority Coalition announced sessions would be canceled until at least next week.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday Stutes said 26 positive COVID-19 cases have been identified among House lawmakers and their staff and with the close quarters in the House chamber precautions needed to be taken.

“All we’re trying to do is keep our members safe, that’s all I’m asking,” Stutes said.

[House again cancels floor session amid masking debate]

It’s not the first time masking has been a point of contention for lawmakers, but House leadership has said they intended to read this year’s operating budget bill across the floor this week and without a full floor session, that can’t be done. The Legislature is constitutionally required to pass a budget and technically has until May to be able to do that, but last year lawmakers went through multiple special sessions before the process was finished.

The Republican minority said in a statement Tuesday three members refusing to wear masks was insufficient reason to cancel a floor session.

Masking rules for the Alaska State Capitol building are governed by the bicameral Legislative Council which lifted the rules in February, but committee chairs and presiding officers still have authority in their respective chambers. Stutes said Wednesday she told lawmakers at the time masking may be required again if case counts rise.

“This is the policy and if you think you’re going to come in here and totally ignore the policy, we simply aren’t going to have session,” Stutes said.

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

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