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Guest Commentary

 

Sen. Bert Stedman has been serving Southeast communities for 17 years. He is the Senate Finance Committee co-chair.

It did not take a positive test for the Alaska State Legislature to begin addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and treat it with an urgency the virus deserves.

Rather, the Senate acted swiftly on March 11 – one day before the state announced its first confirmed case in Alaska– when it passed the first of five bills in a three-week period.

As we communicated with our respective communities, we continued working on a broad plan, one piece at a time, while imploring Alaskans to follow simple daily practices recommended by the Center for Disease Control: hand washing, social distancing and not touching your face.

Among the five bills, three were budget bills that collectively led to several appropriations including:

• $94 million for the Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS) Public Health Emergency Programs for COVID-19 contact tracing, testing, and investigations;

• $30 million for local communities to spend on items like food pantries and protective gear;

• $8.5 million to coastal communities to offset losses from cruise ship head tax, which is vital to our economy.

Of these, three budget bills, Governor Mike Dunleavy has signed the first one into law and on Tuesday, March 31, two more bills landed on his desk and await his signature.

Under HB 206, which the governor signed on March 16, the Legislature approved $4.1 million for DHSS, plus $9 million in federal receipt authority requested by the governor. This quickly provided our health care professionals with necessary resources to stem the virus' ability to spread.

However, we did not stop there.

The Legislature also expanded unemployment benefits for Alaskans impacted by the virus; this makes Alaska eligible for insurance grants under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. The bill, signed into law on March 25, also waives a standard one-week waiting period with many Alaskans forced to remain indoors.

In the final hours before going into recess early Sunday morning, the Legislature extended Governor Dunleavy's public health disaster emergency declaration to November. Under SB 241, we have placed strong protections for Alaskans experiencing economic hardship from COVID-19. Alaskans also have another month to apply for their Permanent Fund dividend with the deadline extended to April 30.

We are closely monitoring developments of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Governor will be providing monthly status reports to the Legislature. We have made provisions for the next few months for assistance where we anticipated a need.

The Alaska State Legislature may be in recess, but our work is far from being completed. We have positioned ourselves to return to work before the current session expires under the May 20 constitutional deadline. We will also be prepared to return for a special session to address the recovery assistance Alaskans will need.

Sen. Bert Stedman

 

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