The leaders of the Alaska House and Senate said they do not have the votes to call the Legislature into special session to extend a disaster declaration for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and asked Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Monday for his help.
Senate President Cathy Giessel and House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, in a letter to Dunleavy, asked that he exercise his powers to call lawmakers into special session or help them secure the votes necessary so the Legislature can call a special session of its own.
They said members have expressed an interest in extending the public health disaster emergency declaration, set to expire Nov. 15.
“However, it is clear after months of what appeared to be a lack of interest in convening the Legislature by your administration, the sudden nature of your request finds many legislators in a difficult position, given the immediate timeline involved and with COVID-19 cases spiking across the state,” they wrote. Giessel, like Dunleavy, is a Republican. Edgmon is an independent.
Dunleavy’s chief of staff, Ben Stevens, asked them Friday if they had polled their members. He said Dunleavy wanted to know if the Legislature planned to convene itself to extend the declaration “or let it expire.”
At least 40 lawmakers must agree for the Legislature to call itself into special session. The Legislature has 60 seats though one remains vacant after the July death of Rep. Gary Knopp, who was part of the bipartisan House majority. Some lawmakers, such as Rep. Ben Carpenter and Sen. Lora Reinbold, both Republicans, have argued for the declaration to end.
Giessel and Edgmon asked for Dunleavy’s help appealing to “the smaller group of legislators, who have, in the past two years, consistently looked to you for direction.”
“We are highly confident you are aware of this dynamic, having routinely used it to attain your objectives during the first two years of your administration to thwart veto overrides of your budget, among other procedural matters,” Giessel and Edgmon wrote.
Jeff Turner, a Dunleavy spokesperson, said Dunleavy is evaluating “all options regarding a continuance of the state of emergency Alaska’s residents are facing and will make a decision soon.”
“His paramount consideration is the health and safety of Alaskans, especially the most vulnerable in our communities,” Turner said by email.
Stevens, in a statement last week, said if the Legislature doesn’t convene itself, Dunleavy could call a special session or allow the existing declaration to expire and issue a new one.
Legislative Legal Services Director Megan Wallace, in a September memo, wrote that no statutory provision authorizes the governor to issue a second declaration for the same emergency.
Alaska is in what Dunleavy has called an “acceleration” phase of COVID-19 cases. He has said the state is taking steps to bolster testing, supplies and contact tracing.
The state health department has reported nearly 16,000 confirmed resident cases since the start of the pandemic. Of those, about 9,400 are active, according to the state health department.
Giessel said she had been under the impression, based on Dunleavy’s public statements, that he wasn’t particularly concerned about continuing the disaster declaration.
“This should have been dealt with months ago. There should have been communication months ago and there was not,” she said, citing a lack of communication from Dunleavy’s office on the issue.
She said there is interest in having the extension done in a “secure, law-conforming way.” She said lawmakers want to avoid a repeat of the “fiasco” that surrounded authorization of federal coronavirus aid for various programs. The manner in which that was approved was challenged in court.