KUCB Talks With Rep. Bryce Edgmon About State Budget And COVID-19
The Alaska Legislature passed an operating budget last month, after only 69 days in the Capitol.
KUCB's Caroline Lester spoke with Rep. Bryce Edgmon (I-Dillingham) on Monday about the session, and what lawmakers are doing to address the coronavirus pandemic.
CAROLINE LESTER: What are some of the concerns that the state or the legislature is thinking about when it comes to COVID-19 in rural areas and rural communities?
BRYCE EDGMON: Well, that is the question of the moment, obviously. And I think what's very apparent to all of us is that COVID-19 is coming our way. The best way that I could sort of characterize it is that we're all in over our heads on this because the issue is so large in so many ways. On the Juneau end of things, we passed legislative bill 241 that had a lot of provisions in it that tries to provide short-term relief to people who would be facing evictions or foreclosures on their homes or utility bills, they weren't able to pay. We passed the House Bill 308 that increased employment benefits and removed the waiting periods, along with the federal stimulus package that's coming our way. And then like everyone else, we're waiting to see what the two trillion dollar federal package means for Alaska. And all this in an environment where the state's finances are really taking a hit as well.
KUCB: Well, I'd love I'd love to sort of get a little bit more into the details of some of this aid. One of the things that we've been hearing about is that all critical access hospitals around the state qualify for funding under the Federal Cares Act. But here in Unalaska, obviously, we don't have a critical access hospital: we only have a clinic which doesn't qualify for that funding. But we're also, I think, by my calculations, the largest rural community without access to a hospital. Is there any sort of alternative funding for clinics or possibilities of funding?
EDGMON: Well, we provided $88 million for COVID-19 response, and the expectation that the governor, tonight, is going to sign the operating budget, which will make that money available. I don't have the details at my fingertips as to what that might mean the clinic in Alaska, but I would be happy to look more into that. And I'm sure that administrators at the clinic are working overtime to see what, if any, that can find its way to the clinic.
KUCB: One of the things that you mentioned was unemployment benefits for people who've lost their jobs or all the different ways the state is looking to help people who have been impacted economically by [coronavirus]. But one of the things that I keep thinking about is health care coverage for people who have either lost their jobs or suddenly can't afford their premiums. What kind of access to coverage is the state working on, if any?
EDGMON: Yeah, that's a great question. I don't have a good answer for that, at this point. Iin an omnibus bill that we did pass before we adjourned roughly a week or so ago, we did address the issue in a manner that would provide indemnification for health care workers who might be working on the COVID-19 issue. But in terms of federal benefits, I'd have to look more into that.
KUCB: Unalaska has a huge industry presence. And with the governor's mandates, industry is allowed to continue operating and flying people in and transiting around the state. But one of the things that is required is for them to submit plans to the state that explain how they're acting safely and protecting the communities that they're transiting through. So I was wondering how the state is reviewing those safety plans and whether or not communities will have access to those plans.
EDGMON: I think that's a question you should direct to the governor's office. They're the purveyors of these plans. I can tell you that a lot of concern up and down the district that I represent, all primarily commercial fishing communities--certianly for Unalaska, there's a whole different scale of workforce and involvement of people getting off of boats right now, not being able to fly out if they wanted to. There is more reacting going on in some sense ithan there is being proactive because this is so big, and so, something that just none of us ever anticipated.
KUCB: Thank you. So just one last question: a lot of news has been sort of forgotten or skimmed over because of coronavirus coverage. Is there anything that passed in the recent budget that you're particularly proud of or you think is really important for rural communities to take note of the legislature?
EDGMON: You know, we got here in January where the revenue picture was much rosier than one when we recessed just a short week or so ago. In the meanwhile, we did everything possible to take a balanced approach, to fund education at the recommended level quite a little bit more for the ferry system. In the end, we provided $12.5 million more for the university system. We did increase K-12 to co-funding by $30 million, which brought it up to where it was the year before. And we were able to put some additional money and like we talked about for the COVID-19 response. And so, you know, sort of largely kept the status quo budget in place. At the same time, we dug down deep and almost extinguished one last savings account with those to provide a thousand-dollar permanent fund dividend to Alaskan residents. But when we do come back to Juneau, it's going to present some pretty tough conditions for us to react to. The state's fiscal situation is something to keep an eye on because in the midst of all of the downturn in oil prices and stock markets, and the initial money that's going to have to go to fight COVID-19, we'll find ourselves back in Juneau next session with the revenue picture that's going to be diminished. And a savings account that is nearly depleted. And at the same time, maybe additional responsibility to help get Alaska's economy up and running while we're struggling to provide basic services. So, you know, that's pretty weighty topic and one that we probably should talk about in more detail at a later time.
KUCB: All right. Thank you. Thank you so much. Really appreciate you taking the time to talk with us.
EDGMON: You bet. My privilege. And please let me know if you want me back onin the future. I'd be happy to make myself available.