In late April, the federal government sent Alaska over $1.25 billion in funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to help Alaska weather the impacts of COVID-19. These funds are for small businesses, impacted Alaskans, local governments, public health efforts, and other affected sectors of the state.
The legislature is currently in recess due to the COVID-19 public health emergency. Governor Dunleavy has proposed using a technical process known as Revised Program Legislative requests, or "RPLs" to get legislative approval to distribute the funding to communities and business across Alaska. RPLs are approved by the Legislative Budget and Audit committee, which I have served on for four years. They are typically used between legislative sessions to accept federal money for existing programs.
Can we use the RPL process to disburse CARES Act funds?
We have received guidance from legislative attorneys and financial analysts that while some of these RPL requests are appropriate, many of them don't meet the legal standard for that process because there is no existing program and no existing appropriation. Our attorneys have advised us that the right way to get federal funding to these areas is through an appropriations bill which would require the legislature to meet again. This could be done in just a few short days if well coordinated.
This is a once in a lifetime situation. Couldn't you make an exception and use the RPL process instead of passing an appropriations bill?
It is a longstanding constitutional principle in our country that the power of appropriation resides within the legislative branch of government. Many legislators are concerned that the RPL process is being used inappropriately, and side-stepping the legislative process.
More importantly, improper distribution of these federal funds could result in lawsuits that could stall distribution of funds or, in the worst case scenario, force local communities to payback this critical financial aid in the midst of a crisis.
However, we are working with our attorneys and colleagues to find a way to get these funds out to Alaskans as quickly as possible.
First round of CARES Act Approved
Last Friday, the Legislative Budget & Audit committee approved several of the RPLs that were clearly legal. $125 million in funds released Friday include:
- $45 million for K-12 education,
- $42 million for child nutrition programs,
- $29 million for rural transportation, including the marine highway,
- $5 million for University of Alaska;
- $3.6 million for state and local law enforcement.
Next round of CARES Act Approvals on Wednesday
I believe that any approval of these RPLs must make it clear that the legislature is not ceding its responsibility as the appropriating branch of government, and that the approval is due to the emergency nature of the COVID-19 public health and economic crisis. The legislature does not want to set a precedent that a future governor could abuse.