Alaska governor urges supplemental dividend in aid proposal
JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy called on lawmakers Friday to approve checks of about $1,300 for residents to help offset economic impacts of the coronavirus.
He called it the quickest way to get money into the hands of Alaskans, many of whom have been affected by the temporary closure of bars, restaurants, gyms, theaters and other venues in a bid to slow the virus’ spread.
The amount he is calling for is equal to what he argues Alaskans are owed as part of their 2019 Permanent Fund dividend checks. Dunleavy has advocated paying a dividend using a formula last used in 2015 amid a persistent state deficit. Lawmakers last year approved a $1,606 check. Under the formula, the Department of Revenue has said the check would have been $2,910.
Dunleavy mistakenly said the amount was $1,306; his spokesman, Jeff Turner, confirmed the amount sought is $1,304.
The Republican governor’s proposal also includes plans to create a $1 billion disaster relief fund and direct the Alaska Housing Finance Corp. to suspend foreclosures and evictions. He took no immediate questions.
His budget office, in documents, said the $1 billion would come from earnings of the state’s oil-wealth fund, the Alaska Permanent Fund. While the exact use of the funds isn’t certain, they would help match federal funds or otherwise respond to the situation as it progresses, the document states.
Turner said the sources for the $1 billion were being determined.
The proposed supplemental dividend would take $815 million from permanent fund earnings.
This comes with lawmakers eager to complete their most pressing work in the coming days, which includes budgets. The state, which relies on oil revenue and permanent fund earnings to help pay for government, has struggled with a persistent deficit. For years, lawmakers, at odds over how best to resolve the deficit, have drawn down savings accounts to cover expenses.
Members of the House and Senate majorities all session have been loathe to violate a preset draw on permanent fund earnings, which for the fiscal year starting July 1 is $3.1 billion. Use of the constitutional budget reserve, another option, requires support from three-fourths of each the House and Senate. Some House minority members withheld support for using the fund on a supplemental spending bill, seeing their votes as negotiating tools in pushing for a spending cap or larger dividend.
Senate President Cathy Giessel told reporters earlier Friday that proposals at the federal level could include payments to individuals.
“We don’t want to duplicate what the federal government is doing. We want to work hand-in-hand with them,” she said.
Senate Finance Committee Co-chair Bert Stedman said the budget proposal his committee is working on would include aid to local governments through the school bond debt reimbursement and community assistance programs.
Stedman said lawmakers needed to review Dunleavy’s economic proposal. He said he wants to avoid a political reaction to the situation.
The COVID-19 illness causes mild or moderate symptoms in most people, but severe symptoms are more likely in the elderly or those with existing health problems.
Here are other developments involving the coronavirus:
EXTENDED SCHOOL CLOSURE
Dunleavy announced late Friday night that all public and private schools in Alaska will remain closed until May 1.
State health officials say they strongly advise Alaskans cease non-essential travel out of state and that tourist or non-essential business travel to Alaska be suspended for now in a bid to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The advisory also recommends Alaskans cease non-essential long-distance travel within the state.
Anchorage’s emergency management office asked medical providers to donate swabs, citing a shortage of testing swabs and lack of a definitive shipping date to receive more.
A group seeking to recall Dunleavy is continuing its signature-gathering efforts with what it calls a sign-at-home option.
The campaign said registered voters could request to have a personal petition booklet mailed to them. Campaign manager Claire Pywell said the Recall Dunleavy campaign worked with the Division of Elections to ensure the plan was allowable.
An email seeking comment was sent to a Department of Law spokeswoman.
The number of new unemployment claims jumped from 687 between March 8 and 14 to more than 4,000 between Sunday and Thursday, said Lennon Weller with the state labor department.
The unemployment insurance trust fund has about $495 million, Weller said. While its hard to predict what payments will be, the fund can handle “quite an increase for several months,” Weller said.
The City and Borough of Juneau announced it has started a voluntary screening program for people arriving at Juneau International Airport.
Under the program, passengers who land at the airport can decide if they want a temperature check. Those registering a temperature of 100.4 will get advice on such things as contacting a medical provider and isolating themselves, the city said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises individuals to call a medical provider if they think they’ve been exposed to COVID-19 and develop a fever and symptoms such as coughing or difficulty breathing.
Officials at Denali National Park and Preserve on Friday suspended issuing climbing permits for the tallest mountain in North America.
No permits have been issued to climb Denali or Mount Foraker this year. The climbing season in the national park about 180 miles (290 kilometers) north of Anchorage usually begins in late April and ends in mid-July. Refunds will be issued to those who have started the registration process.
The park service said high alpine mountaineering usually involves flights in small planes and shared equipment, tents and camp facilities.
“In light of these and other factors, such as the difficulty maintaining recommended hygiene protocols in a mountain environment, park officials have determined it is not feasible to adequately protect the health of mountaineering rangers, other emergency responders, pilots, and the climbing public at this time,” Denali officials said in a statement.
Associated Press reporter Mark Thiessen contributed from Anchorage, Alaska.