Alaska is facing an unprecedented health and fiscal emergency. Each day brings news of rising coronavirus infections, extended quarantine and hunker orders, expanded business closures, and growing unemployment. The good news is that timely and strategic actions taken by state, local and federal leaders are helping to “flatten the curve” and provide aid for Alaskans who need it most.
In the last couple of weeks, the state Legislature has acted swiftly on measures aimed to slow the outbreak, keep Alaskans healthy, and provide economic relief for families and businesses. In record time we crafted and passed a budget that maintains critical state services, funds a robust COVID-19 response, and gives state agencies the tools they need to respond to the outbreak. Highlights of the budget include an additional $75 million for the Department of Health and Social Services, $15 million in disaster relief funding, and $5 million for the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation to keep Alaskans out of homelessness.
The Legislature also eased unemployment benefit restrictions and tripled the amount paid each week for dependents so that Alaskan families affected by the outbreak can pay their bills and keep food on the table. For those struggling to make ends meet, we also put a pause on evictions, foreclosures and utility shut-offs. We also expanded a state economic assistance program to offer grants to businesses and nonprofits who need help with operating expenses. And finally, we used nearly all of the state’s remaining savings to fund a $1,000 Alaska Permanent Fund dividend.
These measures were all carefully crafted to dovetail with and avoid duplication of federal relief efforts, including the billions of dollars in wage replacement, small business loans, and cash payments of up to $1,200 per person — all of which are available now or will be soon. The federal government has also promised over $1.2 billion in additional Alaska-specific funding to help our state respond to the crisis, provide loans to businesses, and help families with immediate needs. With so much federal aid heading our way, it’s important that we focus our limited state resources on getting the most bang for our buck and helping those Alaskans truly in need.
Despite these unprecedented state and federal relief efforts, it’s been asked why the Legislature didn’t provide more money in the form of an additional PFD check or other economic stimulus payment. The short answer: a one-time cash payment to every Alaskan regardless of need not only fails to target aid to those who need it most, but it also hamstrings our ability to respond to the crisis in the long term.
An additional PFD beyond the $1,000 pledged for the fall would require spending the very last of our state savings and liquidating Permanent Fund earnings. Our state savings should be reserved in case this crisis goes on longer than foreseen and so we can respond to any additional emergencies, like another earthquake or a severe wildfire season. And our Permanent Fund should be preserved so that future generations can enjoy its benefits as we have. A one-time cash payment would trade both for a band-aid fix that fails to solve a growing crisis with an unknown end date.
Alaskans are going to need help to weather this crisis, both now and into the future. By combining immediate federal assistance with targeted state programs and a $1,000 PFD in the fall, the Legislature has taken important steps to protect those hit hardest by the outbreak right now while also extending a safety net into an uncertain future. Alaskans are resourceful and resilient and I am confident that by working together — and by being smart and strategic with the resources we have — we will make it through this.
Rep. Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage, is a member of the Alaska House of Representatives.