From left to right: Reps. Jonathan Kriess-Tompkins, D-Sitka; Ivy Sponholz, D-Anchorage; Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, and Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage, meet with reporters in the House Speakers Chambers on Monday, March 16, 2020. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

From left to right: Reps. Jonathan Kriess-Tompkins, D-Sitka; Ivy Sponholz, D-Anchorage; Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, and Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage, meet with reporters in the House Speakers Chambers on Monday, March 16, 2020. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

House gets tied up trying to address pandemic

A resolution that would suspend legislative rules gets rolled over

After a long debate and a long break in the House floor session Monday, House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, moved further consideration of House Concurrent Resolution 17 until Tuesday.

HCR 17 would waive certain provisions in the Uniform Rules of the Alaska State Legislature that say announcements of standing or special committee meetings must be posted five days in advance of the meeting.

Under suspended rules, committee chairs would need to give only 24 hours notice.

Supporters of the resolution argued the move was needed to make the Legislature more nimble in response to the growing crisis stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We can do our business in a timely manner if this Legislature has to take more restrictive action, said Rep. Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage, arguing in favor of the resolution.

But members of the Republican Minority Caucus opposed the resolution, saying it cut the public out of the discussion process and rushed what was meant to be a thoughtful drawn-out decision.

The resolution, “falls woefully short of a responsible action” in response to the crisis said Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla.

“This will delay our ever getting out of Juneau, and I will oppose it,” Eastman said.

Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, said many people were already acting out of fear and that cutting people off from the discussions happening on their behalf would only exacerbate those fears.

“This is a dangerous place to be in the eyes of the public,” Vance said. “We need to be sure that Alaskans are walking alongside us in this.”

Committee meetings would still be available to the public via state access programs live Gavel Alaska and the Alaska State Legislature website.

In the midst of the debate, Edgmon called an at ease and then quietly announced a lunch break. It was minority leader Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, who relayed the announcement to the rest of the body.

Shortly after the break was announced, Edgmon and several other majority caucus members held a press conference with reporters to make the case for the resolution.

“We have to prepare ourselves to react in a matter of days,” Edgmon says. “Things are happening outside the Capitol that dictate the Legislature update its pace.”

Edgmon, joined by Reps. Jonathan Kreiss-Tompkins, D-Sitka; Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage; and Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage; said the economic fallout resulting from the pandemic would be dire for Alaska. There were things such as providing special access to unemployment insurance that could help soften the blow of a coming economic disaster.

“This is not just an impending health disaster,” Spohnholz said, “this is an economic disaster. This is a disaster that is coming down at us on so many levels.”

Several of Alaska’s key industries — tourism, fishing and oil — were already being affected by the crisis. Workers living paycheck-to-paycheck would need assistance if they were forced to stay at home due to some health mandate, representatives said.

“The stakes are great, but we have tools,” Kreiss-Tompkins said, citing things like emergency access to unemployment insurance and other programs for needy families. On the floor of the House Kreiss-Tompkins said he believed that if the Legislature didn’t vote to pass this resolution Monday, circumstances would force it to in the near future.

Under the uniform rules, the House needs two-thirds of the Legislature, or 27 votes, to suspend rules. The Senate, which would also have to pass the resolution after the House for the resolution to take effect, would need 14.

Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, who rose in opposition to the bill on the floor, said he found it “frustrating” that members of the House Majority decided to hold a press conference instead of continuing debate.

The break in the session could have been used to have a conversation with the minority, Carpenter said, but instead was used to hold a press conference meant to put pressure on the minority.

Carpenter declined to comment further on his opposition to the resolution, saying that conversation would take place on the floor of the House.

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at 523-2228 or psegall@juneauempire.com.

House Speaker Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, seated, speaks with other members of the House during an at ease on Monday, March 16, 2020. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

House Speaker Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, seated, speaks with other members of the House during an at ease on Monday, March 16, 2020. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

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