The $1 billion in federal covid relief funding approved by the state’s Legislative Budget and Audit committee on Monday includes $100 million for the state’s fisheries — which could benefit Sitka retailers like LFS Marine Supplies. Distributing the money without a vote of the full state legislature may create problems in the future, however. (KCAW photo/Berett Wilber)

A committee of the Alaska Legislature approved more than $1 billion in covid relief funds on Monday evening (5-11-20), after spending four hours deciding whether the action was legal or not.

Although the Alaska Legislature remains in session — recessed, rather than adjourned — most of its 60 members have left the capital, making official business almost impossible.

This concerned Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, during a Town Hall meeting he held over Facebook last Thursday (5-7-20), since the power to appropriate funding in Alaska resides with the full legislature.

Nevertheless, the ten members of the Legislative Budget and Audit committee took the rare step of appropriating the CARES Act funding on their own — according to a spending plan crafted by the governor.

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Ivy Sponholz sits on the bipartisan committee. During a four-hour meeting Monday night (5-11-20), she said that she “wasn’t going to stand in the way” of the relief funding, but she expressed concern that the state was leaving itself open to legal repercussions if the committee adopted the spending plan without the support of the full legislature.

“There is legal jeopardy associated with the approach that we’re taking, which risks our ability to get these funds out in a proper way,” Sponholz said. “I think that’s really problematic. There is the backstop that we can ratify, and I guess I would say that we should ratify as quickly as possible.”

“Ratification” refers to an after-the-fact vote taken by all members of the legislature, when they finally reconvene as a full body.

Sponholz was bothered by the absence of process — especially public input — in the distribution of the federal covid relief funds.

Fellow committee member Sen. Bert Stedman — normally a stickler for legislative procedure — wanted to get the funding into communities without delay.

“I support moving these out this evening,” said Stedman. “I think it’s important that we take action. Clearly there’s a difference of opinion in the legalities of some of the issues, between the administration and us, and that’s fine. But we need to take action, and try to assist our citizens all over the state. And the quicker we take this action this evening, the better.”

The major items in the package were $587 million in direct municipal relief; $290 million in small business relief; and $100 million for the state’s fisheries.