Juneau

The Legislature recessed its 2020 session early Sunday after approving a budget for Fiscal Year 2021 and a new bill granting emergency relief for Alaskans hit by the economic downturn caused by COVID-19 pandemic.

A $1,000 Permanent Fund Dividend was approved as part of the spending plan. An earlier proposal for a second $1,000 dividend approved by the state Senate was not approved in a House-Senate conference committee. Mat-Su Sen. Mike Shower got the second PFD, which was to be issued this summer, through an amendment made on the Senate floor.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy said he was disappointed that most legislators did not support a higher dividend. ““Thousands of Alaskans are out of work through no fault of their own, due to the government pausing most economic activity to slow the spread of the disease,” the governor said in a statement.

“It would appear lawmakers missed the opportunity to create a cash infusion from the earnings reserve account into the hands of Alaskans, like hairdressers and restaurant workers, that could have happened in as little as two weeks. I am quite frankly puzzled why they would not do that.”

A majority of economists understand how a quick injection of cash into the hands of laid-off workers will do more to stabilize the economy than any other approach at this time, Dunleavy said.

Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anch., defended the Legislature’s work. The governor has been given legislation enacting strong economic protections for Alaskans in the coming months, she said.

“In this present crisis, the Alaska Legislature acted decisively to provide our first responders and healthcare workers with the support they need to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. While life, health, and safety remain our top priorities, we also recognize the importance of helping Alaskans cope with the economic harm caused by the painful, yet necessary, health mandates,” Giessel said.

“By working together and following the expert advice of healthcare professionals, we can all do our part to reduce the spread of this virus. I have faith in the people of Alaska and firmly believe we will persevere through this crisis,” she said.

An economic relief bill was moved quickly through the Senate and House. It is Senate Bill 241, a bill imposing moratoriums on foreclosures and seizures of collateral by lenders in a variety of state and private loans as well disconnections of service by utilities for people suffering financial hardship due to COVID-19.

Utilities would also be prevented from disconnecting services for electricity, water and sewer and natural gas. People obtaining relief would have to sign sworn statements that they are adversely affected by the virus and its effects on the economy. Making false statements would constitute perjury, a criminal offense, under the legislation. Borrowers on loans, and utility customers would have to work out repayment agreements with lenders.

Under SB 241 a creditor may not repossess or otherwise take possession of a motor vehicle, aircraft, or watercraft until the date the governor determines that the novel 9 coronavirus disease public health disaster emergency no longer exists, or until 10 June 30, 2020, whichever is earlier.

Another section of the bill attempts to protect the public from price-gouging through unfair or deceptive practices. A person who charges more than 10 percent over the normal price charged for supplies, normal being before the start of the COVID-19 public health disaster, commits an unfair or deceptive act.

This is a violation of state law that carries penalties. Supplies include food; medicine; medical equipment; fuel; and sanitation products. An exception is made for fuel if the increase is caused by an external factor, like the fluctuation in world prices due to supply and demand.

Other provisions of the bill extend the filing deadline for state taxes; recognizes professional licenses in field like nursing that are issued by other states; provides for electronic voting in shareholder meetings, which is important to Alaska Native corporations, and ensures that health workers exposed to COVID-19 while treating patients are covered by workers’ compensation.

Another section authorizes the state Dept. of Commerce and Economic Development to make grants for emergency capital to organizations, which include private businesses as well as nonprofits, experiencing severe cash shortages. The grants would be distributed through the regional economic development organizations, known as ARDORs.

The small grant provision in SB 241 resulted from an amendment to the bill made on the floor of the state House by Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anch.

In the rush of last-minute work late Saturday, the Legislature did not get to two high-profile bills that have passed the Senate but were on the House calendar for floor action. One was Senate Bill 52, a sweeping overhaul of state liquor licensing and regulation that has been worked on over several years. A second was Senate Bill 115, raising the state motor and marine fuel taxes.

Under a recess the Legislature can return to work and pass any bills still pending including the liquor regulation and fuel tax, as long as this happens by the 120th day, in mid-May, the constitutional limit of legislative sessions.

If lawmakers return after that date, which is expected, it will be under a special session in which bills to be worked on must be identified.

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