House Speaker Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, listens to representatives debate a COVID-19 disaster declaration on Thursday, March 25, 2021. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire file)

House Speaker Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, listens to representatives debate a COVID-19 disaster declaration on Thursday, March 25, 2021. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire file)

House passes emergency declaration bill

Governor says it’s not needed

The House of Representatives passed a bill that would retroactively extend the state’s disaster declaration for the COVID-19 pandemic, but Gov. Mike Dunleavy has said he believes the move to be unnecessary.

The House Coalition made of mostly Democrats, independents and led by Speaker Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, argued the declaration would provide the governor legal tools to combat the pandemic now and should the situation change in the future.

“It’s been a rocky year, but we can finally see the shoreline and a clear path to return to life as normal,” Stutes said in a news release. “(The bill) is unequivocally good policy because it simply gives the state flexibility in case we get another surprise during the home stretch.”

The governor and many Republican lawmakers said the state needs to move away from an emergency response footing and more toward reopening the state’s economy. Republicans tried to remove the declaration language in a floor session Thursday, leading to an hours-long debate over the direction of the state in managing ongoing health and economic crises. House Republicans Kelley Merrick, R-Eagle River; Sara Rasmussen, R-Anchorage; and Bart LeBon, R-Fairbanks; voted for the bill.

[Lawmakers clash on how to manage pandemic]

The bill now goes to the Senate where Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, has his own version of a disaster bill that would not declare a full emergency, but it would give the governor several specific abilities Dunleavy’s office has determined are needed to effectively combat the pandemic.

While he did not say he would veto a bill declaring an emergency, Dunleavy did send a letter to lawmakers Wednesday saying a disaster declaration wasn’t necessary. Micciche previously told the Empire his intent was to pass a bill the governor would sign.

The bill allows Alaska to operate airport testing sites for out-of-state travelers during the upcoming summer tourism season, off-site testing and vaccination clinics, waivers to health care providers so they can provide healthcare for patients remotely, and to continue receiving $8 million a month in federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamp benefits, the coalition said in a release.

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

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