Pioneer Home bill passes legislature unanimously
Dear Neighbor,
Great news: After more than a year of work, the legislature has voted unanimously to send House Bill 96 to the Governor’s desk. This legislation restores affordable rates at the Pioneer Homes, and limits future rate increases to the rate of inflation. Profound thanks to Senator Begich, Senator President Giessel, and Senate Finance Co-Chairs Von Imhof and Stedman, who expedited passage of this legislation. Also, thanks to my good friend Representative Shaw, with whom I introduced the bill and who helped me carry it on the House floor last year. Finally, thanks to hundreds of Alaskans from every corner of the state who fought back against massive rate hikes, and helped get this bill across the finish line. I certainly hope the Governor doesn’t veto it. Co-sponsors included Representatives Josephson, Tuck, Ortiz, Drummond, Shaw, Spohnholz, Story, Foster, Hannan, LeDoux, and Senators Kawasaki, Wielechowski, Olson, Begich, Gray-Jackson, Kiehl, and Giessel.
COVID-19 Update:
The Municipality of Anchorage moved swiftly to contain COVID-19, but the Dunleavy administration’s response has been uneven. I support the Governor’s request for Disaster Unemployment Assistance so self-employed Alaskans can receive unemployment insurance, and appreciate the Alaska Department of Labor’s collaboration on Unemployment Insurance legislation (HB 308). However, the administration has been too slow in implementing social distancing measures and failing to mandate telework policies for state employees. We now have a confirmed case of COVID-19 for an employee who works in the State Office Building in Juneau. I hope the Governor implements mandatory telework immediately, because state offices like the the Atwood Building and Juneau's State Office Building put state employees in harms way and create the risk of spreading the virus further into our communities. 
The legislature has moved swiftly to expand Unemployment Insurance benefits, including for self-employed Alaskans and Independent Contractors, and we will soon take votes on a disaster declaration. Multiple members and staff are working hard on a broad economic relief package, and I am advocating for making grants available to assist small businesses which are struggling for survival. 
Unemployment is spiking to record levels across the country, and claims have increased 600% in Alaska. Economists predict we will soon see unemployment rates of close to 15%, the worst since the Great Depression. Here’s the good news: Countries like South Korea have shown that we can contain COVID-19 and keep death rates low. How? With widespread testing and much broader access to ICU care in hospitals. Unfortunately, the Trump Administration has failed to mandate mass production of test kits or ventilators, and is contemplating roll-backs of social distancing guidelines. Allowing the virus to run rampant would kill millions of Americans (check out the models for yourself). Instead of condemning millions to death, the Trump Administration must use its statutory authority to force massive production of test kits and ventilators. We can save lives and our economy, but it requires competence from the federal administration.
Congress is acting much faster than the President, and is passing the most sweeping economic relief package in American history. Key things you need to know: If you’re unemployed, you’ll be able to collect $600/week in Federal Additional Compensation on top of your traditional UI benefits. Representative Spohnholz and I urged our Congressional Delegation to advocate for this language, and I’m very happy to see it in the final bill. With passage of multiple Unemployment Insurance reform bills at the state and local level, we now have the most flexible and expansive system of benefits in history, including for self employed Alaskans and independent contractors. Please apply if you think you might be eligible.
Operating and Capital Budgets:
We are rushing to complete the operating budget and at least a portion of the capital budget before recessing to avoid COVID-19 in the capital. We must try to get these budgets done before hunkering down for what could be a prolonged period of time. The legislature will be recessing, not adjourning, because there will be much more work to do in recovering from this economic and public health crisis. As you probably know, the Senate unexpectedly added two $1,000 PFDs to the operating budget. Unfortunately, that would require over-drawing the Permanent Fund, which means decreasing the earnings of the fund and compounding those losses every year into the future. I will not vote for a budget that over-draws the Permanent Fund, because that is the bedrock on which we will need to rebuild our economy after this disaster. As I write this email, Congress is in final deliberations on a $2 trillion (yes with a “t”) relief package that includes $1,200 payments to adults and $500 payments to children. If the federal government is picking up the tab for dividends, why would we use our extremely limited savings? Consider this: Even if we had a $0 state-funded dividend for the next three years, we would still have a budget deficit. The Governor has a responsibility to be honest with Alaskans, just as legislative leadership from the Senate and House have been. We have to pull every lever to provide relief for Alaskans, but when it comes to fiscal stimulus we are very dependent on the federal government. Our savings accounts are nearly exhausted, and over-drawing the Permanent Fund will only lock us into a death spiral of ever-larger deficits, and declining schools, infrastructure, and public safety.
Protecting Victims of Crime:
Congratulations to Senator Begich, whose SB 106 passed the House yesterday. I was honored to carry it on the House floor. This bill came about thanks to the advocacy of Penny Gage, who pointed out a loophole in state insurance law. Senator Begich followed up, bringing together the Division of Insurance and stakeholders to draft a consensus bill so insurance companies can no longer cancel crime victims’ homeowners/renter’s insurance. This is a good bill that prevents crime victims from being re-victimized, and thanks to Senator Begich and Ms. Gage for their hard work to get it passed.
HB 301 Passes House to Defend Alaska Apprenticeships:
Thanks to Representative Laddie Shaw for carrying HB 301 on the House floor, where it passed 33-1. This bill, which 19 bipartisan House members teamed up to introduce, protects our electrical, plumbing, and pipefitting apprenticeships from anti-business, anti-labor regulations proposed by the State Department of Labor and Workforce Development. While I remain baffled why the department would persist with these unpopular regulations, it is great to see such a strong affirmation of support for apprenticeship in the House of Representatives.
Please keep in touch,
Zack
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