Dear Neighbors & Friends,
We’ve just received word that we will be going back to Juneau next week to complete work on distribution of the federal CARES Act funds. There’s been some confusion on this process so let me explain.
There are 3 ways to appropriate funds – the regular process of passing a budget with expected costs for state agencies, a supplemental budget when costs exceeded what was appropriated through the regular process, and the RPL (Revised Program Legislative) process used when the legislature is not in session to receive additional funds, generally from the federal government. The catch here is that for the RPL process to be used legally the funding has to go to a program that already exists. That’s where we’ve run into problems here.
With the pandemic still impacting safe travel it is understandable that many are concerned about bringing everyone back together. Members of the legislature are cancer survivors, have heart conditions, and more, just like everyone else. So, we went down one path, using the RPLs from the Governor and approving them through the committee process. I became increasing concerned about this process after our legislative attorney warned us this process could be challenged because the appropriation power belongs to the legislature, not the Governor, and so we needed to distribute the funds. We were told this is a clear separation of powers issue. Now, a lawsuit has been filed meaning distribution of funds could be delayed. We are headed back to Juneau Monday to work this out.
For me, I just want to follow the rules. I took an oath to uphold the constitution and for me that means all the time, not just when it is convenient. This reminds me of how I felt last year when the debate raged on where to hold the special session. I just wanted to attend what was considered the legal location. I don’t think legislators are above the law and I think the easy thing to do is just follow the rules. That ensures a fair process for all members of the legislature, majority or minority, and a set of rules everyone can agree to follow. I also think this is so important because I want the public to trust their government and I know when it looks like we are bending the rules for convenience people get very upset. I feel very challenged when I am asked to bend the rules in a way that violates my constitutional oath. The good news is that once we come back together we will have the opportunity to pass a measure that would allow us to securely and temporarily conduct sessions remotely. Some of us pushed to address this before the March 28th recess and what has happened this week underscores the need for a policy that can allow us to continue working, but not ask members to have to travel back and forth.
USING THE CARES ACTS FUNDS TO DO THE MOST GOOD ACROSS THE STATE
As the process has continued on it has given me the time to hear from hundreds of Alaskans about how these funds can be spent to really help Alaskans. I don’t know if I’ll have the opportunity to fix how the funding is distributed, but I and those who collaborated on the ideas below wanted Alaskans to see there are many options.
I want to push this because for a few years now I’ve listened as colleagues have said we can’t afford a full PFD or a larger PFD. Of course that’s not really true because if we had a fiscal plan in place with other revenues the funds from the Permanent Fund could in fact go to a larger PFD, but that has been their position. Why I am increasingly frustrated with this attitude is that it disproportionately harms working class and low income Alaskans. Our district is the lowest income district in an urban area and the third lowest income district in the state. The dividend is more meaningful for folks in these areas relative to their overall income. We know cutting the PFD is the most regressive way to balance our budget, yet for years now it has been the only option on the table.
So fast forward to now. This pandemic has hurt everyone, but we know for folks on the edge any disruption in employment or wages can push them off the edge. Not to mention all the additional stress people have been under and the extra responsibilities with children at home from school. So when it comes to distribution of the CAREs Act funds I think all Alaskans should see some benefit. I have been really disappointed in some of my colleagues unwillingness to consider some of the ideas below that would really help people. I wrote to the Governor on these items too with no response. It seems knowing there have been over 80,000 unemployment claims didn’t convince them many, many Alaskans are really hurting.
I feel like I’m seeing their true colors and it’s not pretty. I have been appalled that not even during a pandemic with $1.25 billion dollars of federal aid are some of them willing to help the little gal or guy out. At the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee meeting Monday night as rental and mortgage relief was discussed a senator suggested banks are giving away months of free payments, that it only took 45 seconds and boom, payments are covered. It was terrible the way it was said as if anyone that didn’t already know that was dumb. The sad thing is they were wrong. If banks were giving away free money it would be because the federal government gave them a bailout and if that were the case we’d all know about it. No, this was just someone not in touch with what is going on for many Alaskans. Yes, some banks are allowing a reduced payment for a set period of time at the end of which all of the back payment is due plus the current payments. These “balloon payments” can cause real problems for borrowers who struggle to catch up and sometimes can result in higher interest for the rest of the loan. Or they are letting you add on months to the end of your mortgage adding more interest overall. It’s better than being homeless, but it’s not free money. We could use CARES Act funds to address rental and mortgage relief that would benefit renters, owners, and businesses, but to do so we need more like $100 million, not $10 million. I was equally surprised to hear Senators suggest $10 million would be sufficient. Quick math - $10,000,000 / $1,000 = 10,000 Alaskans. Hmm.. Over 80,000 Alaskans have applied for unemployment. It takes about two seconds to see that is nowhere near enough to meet the demand. I’ll keep pushing because it is my firm belief that all Alaskans should benefit from these dollars and that means getting some directly to people.
UPCOMING COMMUNITY COUNCIL MEETINGS
Community Councils are now doing some online meetings, although in May some transition to summer and stop meeting.
We will keep you posted on future meetings.
Until next week,
P.S. Please let us know if we can help you with any Covid-19 questions. We are available, although to practice safe physical distancing, are working remotely. If you get voicemail for the office phone you can call me on my cell at 360-4047.