Alaska State Legislature

Alaska State Capitol Building, Juneau.

State legislative leaders decided Friday to strictly limit access to the state capitol building in Juneau, where the Legislature is in session and the offices of Gov. Mike Dunleavy are located.

“Effective immediately, access to the State Capitol will be limited to lawmakers, employees of the Legislature, members of the governor’s administration, and credentialed journalists,” Senate President Cathy Giessel and House Speaker Bryce Edgmon said in a joint statement.

The ban includes lobbyists, who typically line the hallways in the capitol hoping to catch the ear of lawmakers. Instead, like other members of the public lobbyists will have to rely on cell phones and watching Gavel Alaska, the Legislature’s public-access program for committee meetings and House and Senate floor sessions.

“Legislative work will continue as normal, and Alaskans will be able to participate fully in the public process by following along on Gavel Alaska,, and through written and telephonic testimony,” the statement from Giessel and Edgmon said.

The Legislature also enacted a temporary ban on state-sponsored travel by lawmakers and legislative employees. Additionally, anyone with access to the Capitol who travels out-of-state on personal business will be advised not to re-enter the building for at least seven days upon returning.

Members of the subcommittee also established protocols for what will occur if someone with access to the Capitol tests positive for COVID-19, which will be guided by advice from the Department of Health and Social Services and the Centers for Disease Control.

“To protect Alaskans and ensure the people’s business continues in a timely and transparent manner, the Legislature has acted to limit the spread of the virus,” said Sen. Gary Stevens (R-Kodiak), chair of the Legislative Council Subcommittee on Emergency Response and Preparedness. “After several lengthy discussions, and in accordance with CDC guidelines, we will reduce interpersonal contact in the Capitol to limit exposure to the new coronavirus.”

These unprecedented steps are temporary but necessary to protect the health and safety of Alaskans and ensure the Legislature is able to finalize budgets and other important matters.

“Alaskans elected us to lead, and that’s what we’re doing. We’re committed to continuing our legislative work, which includes making sure healthcare workers have the tools they need to slow the spread of COVID-19,” House Speaker Bryce Edgmon (I-Dillingham) said.

House Speaker Bryce Edgmon (I-Dillingham) said.

“A few precautionary steps will help mitigate the spread of this disease,” Senate President Cathy Giessel (R-Anchorage) said. “We want to reduce the strain on our healthcare facilities to ensure our most vulnerable Alaskans receive the care they need, and continue the important work of passing a balanced budget for the people of Alaska.”

Lawmakers are urging Alaskans to regularly visit the Dept. of Health and Social Services website for up-to-date information about COVID-19. “It’s important to remember that washing your hands, social distancing, and not touching your face are simple practices that can help reduce the spread of this virus,” the joint House-Senate statement said. Earlier this week, with overwhelming support, the House and Senate expedited the passage of a mental health budget that approves $13.1 million in emergency coronavirus federal and state funding.

Meanwhile, business continued in the state capitol. Earlier last week the Legislature passed House Bill 29, a bill that expands access to telehealth, an important tool to protect the health of Alaskans as our medical system responds to the new coronavirus. Telehealth refers to medical services or consultations provided by way of the internet or videoconferencing, and without a physical examination.

The bill, which is now on Gov. Mike Duleavy’s desk, requires private insurers to over expenses for medical services delivered through telehealth.

While many insurers do cover the services not all do.

Alaska’s tribal health organizations have used telehealth for years, realizing substantial savings in reduced travel and faster access to health care for certain conditions like injuries.Telehealth has also been expanded for Medicaid recipients for certain conditions.

In another development, a major bill that streamlines and strengthens state regulatory oversight of electric utilities along the state’s “railbelt,” from Southcentral to Interior Alaska, has passed the Senate and is in the House Rules Committee, at an advanced stage of approval in that body.

Among other things the bill will requires pre-approval by the Regulatory Commission of Alaska for major new power generation and transmission facilities, to limit overbuilding of power generation that leads to higher costs for consumers.

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