Alaska Capitol

Following an afternoon rife with debate, the Alaska Senate passed a $4.73 billion operating budget Monday that includes an unprecedented two Alaska Permanent Fund dividends: one to be distributed before July 1 of this year to all who qualified for a 2019 dividend in an effort to ease COVID-19-related economic struggles and one to be distributed at the regular time in October.

The bill, as passed by the Senate, would pay a $1,000 dividend in the fall to all Alaskans who qualify for a 2020 dividend and would appropriate an additional $680 million to be distributed among the Alaskans who qualified for a 2019 dividend –– setting the supplemental payout to be distributed by July at about $1,000 per individual. The supplemental dividend was referred to by a number of senators as a COVID-19 relief payment or individual stimulus and would theoretically be paid out as soon as the budget is passed and signed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

The Senate kept operating expenses relatively flat at $4.61 billion plus $116.8 million in capital funding for infrastructure and maintenance costs, including an additional $30 million for K-12 education.

The bill also includes $80 million to assist with COVID-19 response split into two sections: $75 million to the Department of Health and Social Services Public Health Emergency Programs and $5 million to the Disaster Relief Fund to be used by the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs to help with the public health disaster response.

The bill passed the Senate 17-1, with Eagle River Republican Sen. Lora Reinbold as the sole dissenting vote, and will now be discussed in a conference committee between the House and Senate where differences in each bill will be negotiated.

House Bill 308

Additionally, the Legislature unanimously approved a bill Monday that expands the state's unemployment insurance program in an effort to assist those who have lost work due to the outbreak of COVID-19 and subsequent business closures.

The bill opens up unemployment benefits to Alaskans who have lost work, either from being forced to stay at home to care for children displaced from school or child care or from lost employment when their employer’s business closed. It also allows the state to receive federal unemployment insurance grants authorized by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act recently signed by President Donald Trump.

The legislation waives the normal one-week waiting period and the requirement that those affected be ready and able to work, as many Alaskans will be forced to remain indoors due to COVID-19 restrictions. It also removes the cap on the number of dependents cared for in the bill and increases the allowance for dependents from $24 to $75 per dependent per week.

According to statistics from the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, Alaska's unemployment filing numbers rose from 687 to 4,046 between the first week of March and last week.

House Bill 308 now awaits signature from the governor.

Contact staff writer Erin McGroarty at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.