Capitol Report: Legislature Adjourns

March 30, 2020

Capitol Report: Legislature Adjourns 

Legislature Adjourns For Now
The Legislature has concluded its business and recessed for the foreseeable future. Today is only the 70th day of the 120-day session, but the COVID-19 crisis has seriously disrupted the process and lawmakers became increasingly concerned with working in close quarters in the State Capitol. House Speaker Bryce Edgmon called this one of the most uncertain periods in the state’s history. Legislators and their non-Juneau staff, will be transitioning home over the next several days.
It’s important to note that the Legislature did not adjourn Sine Die, the formal motion to conclude a legislative session. The House and Senate have merely recessed, providing flexibility to return to work as necessary any time before Tuesday, May 19  (the 120 day constitutional limit). Any bill that didn’t pass before the recess, can be taken up at that time. Meeting after May 19  will require either the Legislature or the Governor to call a special session.
Lawmakers Fund FY21 Spending Plan
Floor sessions ran into the early hours Sunday morning, concluding with a House and Senate agreement on a FY21 spending plan. Before sending the plan to each chamber for concurrence, the budget Conference Committee made several structural changes designed to pressure lawmakers into supporting a draw on the Constitutional Budget Reserve (CBR). Had the budget failed to achieve the three-quarter-vote threshold necessary to access the CBR, state agency budgets would have only received 75 percent funding, the Permanent Fund Dividend would have been reduced to $500, and funding for several important University of Alaska programs would have been jeopardized.
In the end, a number of House members reluctantly agreed to support using the CBR to balance this year’s budget. The House approved the budget on a 23-13 vote, but the more critical CBR vote was 30-6, just enough to meet the 30 vote requirement. Once the bill is transmitted to the Governor, he will have 15 days to conduct his review and to sign the budget.
The budget includes $289.5 million in unrestricted general funds (UGF) for the University of Alaska. This is $12.5 million below the current year, but $12.5 million above the compact agreement. Unless the Governor takes action to the contrary, the Legislature’s three-quarter vote on the CBR, ensures a “reverse” sweep will occur on July 1, guaranteeing that fund balances swept at the end of the fiscal year, are returned. This includes the Higher Education Investment Fund, which is the funding source for the WWAMI program, Alaska Performance Scholarships and the needs-based Alaska Education Grant. Had the Legislature failed to obtain approval for the reverse sweep, 50+ separate accounts could have been drained, impacting critically important funding for a wide-range of programs like Power Cost Equalization, civil legal services, the Alaska Marine Highway System, oil spill response and many others.
COVID-19 Disaster Legislation
Aside from the budget, the majority of this week was focused on passing legislation to help address the COVID-19 crisis. By the end of the week, most legislative proposals were rolled into SB 241 and finalized in a Free Conference Committee Saturday. Authorizing a Free Conference is an extremely rare legislative procedure, typically only used when lawmakers need maximum flexibility in a short period of time.
SB 241 was  originally introduced to extend the Governor’s Public Health Disaster Declaration from March 11 to November 15. But by this weekend, the bill included a diverse range of provisions to help Alaskans deal with the economic and health impacts of the COVID-19 epidemic. The bill recognizes that many Alaskans are facing immediate financial hardship brought on by the economic fallout, and containment measures implemented to impede spread of the virus. For those facing serious economic hardships, the bill provides protections during the emergency against eviction, foreclosure, repossessions, utility shut-offs, and ensures access to basic life and safety needs. The legislation also grants the Lt. Governor flexibility in conducting state elections, including the potential to expand mail-in voting if warranted.
The University of Alaska helped advance two important provisions included in the final version of SB 241. The first provision, contained in Section 28 of the bill, addresses the recently passed federal stimulus bill (CARES Act). This federal legislation contains $31 billion in emergency funding to help stabilize K-12 and higher education from the tremendous disruption caused by the COVID-19 crisis. To receive these funds, the Governor must apply for them, and must make assurances to maintain state funding for education. SB 241 mandates that the State of Alaska apply for any emergency education funding made available in the CARES Act, and states the Governor shall make reasonable efforts to ensure UA is allocated the maximum funding allowable under the new law. In addition to this provision, UA may qualify for over $8 million in direct federal assistance, which can be used to cover costs in the delivery of class instruction and provide financial relief to students incurring expenses caused by the disruption of normal campus operations.
The second provision of SB 241, Section 32, provides Good-Samaritan protection for Alaska manufacturers trying to help address the critical shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) available for our first responders and health care professionals. UAA’s Business Enterprise Institute and Manufacturing Extension Partnership in working with Alaska’s hospitals and health care providers, identified a concern over locally produced PPE products meeting stringent national standards. This provision will help ensure local manufacturers can contribute to equipment shortages by exempting healthcare organizations and manufacturers from liability, when acting in good faith and utilizing the best available PPE.
Legislation That Didn’t Make It
To date, lawmakers have enacted 66 bills during the 31st Alaska Legislature. The abrupt end to this historically short session seriously curtailed the number of bills that made it over the finish line. Even as late as yesterday, several major pieces of legislation were still in play, but ultimately ran out of time. Two big legislative priority bills – Senator Peter Micciche’s reform of Alaska’s alcohol laws (SB 52) and Senator Click Bishop’s legislation to increase in the state’s fuel tax regime (SB 115) – didn’t make it through the entire process.
Among the stranded bills were two university priorities. SB 30, Senator Gary Stevens’ legislation expanding Middle College programs that allow high school students to take university courses for both college and high school credit. And HB 268, Representative Bart LeBon’s bill expanding the Alaska Municipal Bond Bank’s authority to loan money to the university . We will continue to look for opportunities to advance these bills should the legislature reconvene prior to the May 16 deadline, and next session if necessary.
Boards & Commission Appointees Service Extended
Before adjourning, the Legislature provided a blanket extension to the Governor’s appointees on state boards and commission who are still waiting to be confirmed by the Legislature. UA’s Student Regent Cachet Garrett, is one of the Governor’s appointees that was awaiting confirmation this session.
Typically, the legislature convenes the joint session to consider the governor’s appointees towards the end of the 90 or 120 regular session. Unfortunately, the coronavirus health crisis forced the legislature to recess early, before they were able to convene the confirmation joint session. They did not Sine Die the 2nd Session of the 31st Legislature last night, they merely recessed, which gives them the flexibility to return to work as necessary, any time before the Tuesday, May 19 (the 120 day limit). On Thursday, they passed SCR 14 allowing them to recess for longer than 3 days. However, at this time, it’s still not clear when and if they may be able to hold such a session before having to adjourn.
Under current law, if the legislature doesn’t take up confirmations in a joint session before the regular session adjourns, appointees are considered to have been declined.  To accommodate for this unique situation, the legislature passed HB 309 temporarily extending the time for holding a joint confirmation session. The bill gives the legislature more time to convene a joint session – the earlier of 30 days after the expiration of the Governor’s coronavirus health disaster emergency declaration or by January 18, 2021. The bill provides temporary relief to appointees that are pending confirmation, by clarifying that the joint session having not yet occurred “is not tantamount to a declination of confirmation.” Appointees can continue to serve until a joint session is convened.
Legislature Recognizes UAS Chancellor
The Legislature has passed a citation honoring UAS Chancellor Rick Caulfield for his many years of service to the university. Chancellor Caulfield has led UAS for 5 years and also served as Provost. In addition, he previously served as a tenured professor at UAF and Dean of the UAF Community & Technical College. Congratulations Chancellor on your upcoming retirement, and thank you for all your service to our university. You can view the citation here.