Alaska lawmakers hope for speedy resolution on budget

    Juneau, Alaska (AP) - Alaska Senate leaders said Friday that lawmakers are pushing to complete their most pressing work in the coming days, as concerns about the coronavirus persist.

    Senate President Cathy Giessel, an Anchorage Republican, said the hope is that this could be done within a week. Priority bills include state budgets, negotiations on which in the past have gotten messy.

    Unsettled, too, is the size of Alaska Permanent Fund dividend to pay residents. Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy has advocated paying a dividend using a formula last used in 2015 amid a persistent state deficit. That idea has been a nonstarter with many lawmakers, who see is as unaffordable.

    “I can't think of a time in the last four years that people would need more cash in their hands than they do now to pay for their bills,” he said Thursday.

    Dunleavy cited impacts of a “government-induced shutdown” of the economy over coronavirus fears, which in Alaska, on his orders, has included the temporary shutdown of restaurants and bars to dine-in service and closure of venues like gyms and theaters. Other states have taken similar measures to try to limit the spread of the virus.

    The COVID-19 illness causes mild or moderate symptoms in most people, but severe symptoms are more likely in the elderly or those with existing health problems.

    Giessel said lawmakers would be judicious in weighing what the state can afford for a dividend. She noted proposals at the federal level that could include payments to individuals.

    “We don't want to duplicate what the federal government is doing. We want to work hand-in-hand with them," she said.

    Senate Finance Committee Co-chair Bert Stedman said the budget proposal coming from the Senate would include aid to local governments through the school bond debt reimbursement and community assistance programs.

    Numerous state legislatures around the country have suspended or postponed their work due to the virus.

    Friday marked day 60 of the Legislature's session. State law sets a 90-day session limit but the state constitution permits 121-day sessions, with an option to extend.

    A bill was introduced Friday intended to give lawmakers flexibility in when they could meet in joint session to consider Dunleavy's appointments to boards and his pick for Revenue commissioner. A measure is possible, too, that would allow the Legislature to recess for more than three days, Giessel said. The idea is that it would leave a window open for lawmakers to return to do additional work if needed, she said.

    Here are other developments involving the coronavirus:

    RECALL GROUP

    A group seeking to recall Dunleavy is continuing its signature-gathering efforts with what it calls a sign-at-home option.

    The campaign said registered voters could request to have a personal petition booklet mailed to them. Campaign manager Claire Pywell said the Recall Dunleavy campaign worked with the Division of Elections to ensure the plan was allowable.

    An email seeking comment was sent to a Department of Law spokeswoman.

    DENALI

    Officials at Denali National Park and Preserve on Friday suspended issuing climbing permits for the tallest mountain in North America.

    No permits have been issued to climb Denali or Mount Foraker this year. The climbing season in the national park about 180 miles (290 kilometers) north of Anchorage usually begins in late April and ends in mid-July. Refunds will be issued to those who have started the registration process.

    The park service said high alpine mountaineering usually involves flights in small planes and shared equipment, tents and camp facilities.

    “In light of these and other factors, such as the difficulty maintaining recommended hygiene protocols in a mountain environment, park officials have determined it is not feasible to adequately protect the health of mountaineering rangers, other emergency responders, pilots, and the climbing public at this time,” Denali officials said in a statement.

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