In this issue:
  • Organization in the House
  • COVID-focused financial navigator program
  • Rent relief funds available - apply by Friday, March 5th
  • Insurance coverage for telehealth during the pandemic
  • Honoring the late Senator Bettye Davis
Organization in the House
Rep. Spohnholz chats with Rep. Schrage, left, and Flora Atquqsaaq, Rep. Pakotak's wife, center, after leaving the House floor.
The House finally organized last week and established leadership and committee assignments so that we can get to work. I'm honored to serve as the:
  • Chair for the House Ways and Means Committee,
  • Co-Chair for the House Labor and Commerce Committee, and as a member on the:
  • House Health and Social Services and Transportation Committees,
  • Legislative Budget and Audit Committee, and
  • Joint Armed Services Committee.

We begin the budget process Monday. I will be sure to keep you in the loop and let you know when there are opportunities for public testimony and input on the budget.

Bringing back the Ways & Means Committee

This year, we re-instated the House Special Committee on Ways and Means. Special Committees, unlike standing Committees, must be created at the beginning of each new legislature.

The House last had a Ways and Means Committees from 2003 through 2008. The Committee has been authorized to consider methods to:
  • control state spending,
  • identify ways in which state government programs may be made more efficient, and
  • propose new measures to raise additional state revenue.

The last time we had a Ways and Means Committee, under former Rep. Mike Hawker's (R) leadership in 2007-2008, the requirements for the Governor to produce a 10-year fiscal plan and develop performance measures were passed. I look forward to exploring an updated spending cap, ways to make government more efficient and to consider ways to balance the budget after years of cuts to the budget.

Some have asked why we need a Ways & Means Committee so I will share a little information about our state's fiscal situation in this newsletter.
I worked with my colleagues to create this special committee because Alaska is facing a fiscal crisis and we need to discuss sustainable solutions now. We face a $2.1 billion deficit with statutory PFDs. After running deficits for 9 consecutive years we spent down nearly all, ($16b), of our savings, and cut state unrestricted fund spending nearly in half to bridge the gap - but it wasn't enough.

If we don't find a sustainable solution to our deficit, our Permanent Funds' Earning Reserve Account will be drained as well since it is our last remaining asset. This would result in less money for Alaskan's PFDs and essential state services, which currently receive over 70% of their funding from the earnings reserve.

I look forward to working as chair of this committee with my colleagues in the House to address these critical issues. Some have expressed concern that the goal of the Ways and Means Committee is just to pass taxes. As I describe above the Ways and Means mandate is broader than new revenue. We need to update our spending cap to make it more meaningful and find ways to squeeze more value from our limited financial resources. However, cuts alone isn't really an option.
As you can see, we cannot just cut our way out of our fiscal gap. Some have asked why we don't just use more of the Permanent Fund earnings reserve account to pay for the $2.1 billion fiscal gap we have with a full statutory PFD.

As illustrated in the following graph, we have spent $16 billion from savings since 2015 to avoid further cuts and new revenue measures. If we did the same to the Permanent Fund earnings reserve, by spending the $15 billion in it, we would risk future PFD's and lose $750 million in earnings those funds would earn every single year--in perpetuity.
It is critically important we protect the Permanent Fund as it now provides 70% of our state's annual unrestricted income. Oil only provides about 25% of our income now--down from 95% for much of the last 40 years.
COVID-focused financial navigator program
There is a new COVID-focused financial navigator program to help connect Alaskans with relief programs, financial counseling, job training, and other resources. Financial navigators are available upon request to provide guidance over the phone.

You can request a session online or by calling 2-1-1.
Rent relief available
Renters in Alaska who make less than 80% of local Area Median Income and have experienced financial hardship as a result of COVID-19 may be eligible for up to 12 months in rent and/or utility assistance, with the possibility to extend to an additional three months. Payments will be directed to landlords, property managers and utilities. Alaskans who have previously received federally-funded housing assistance are eligible.

Applications are open now and close March 5th at 11:59pm. You can check your eligibility for the program at More information on the program is available online.

Text the word “relief” to (833) 440-0420 for more information or to pre-register on your phone.
Insurance coverage for telehealth services during the pandemic
Given the expiration of the state disaster declaration last Sunday, there has been some confusion regarding insurance coverage for health care services delivered via telehealth.

The state's disaster declaration allowed Alaskans to see out-of-state providers via telehealth without an initial in-person consultation to limit travel during the pandemic. However, Alaskans are able to see licensed providers in the state without an initial in-person visit. Additionally, Alaskans who are insured through the private market should see no change to their insurance coverage for telehealth services, unless there is a change to the actual policy.

Last year I passed HB29, which requires that private insurers cover telehealth services. This is now the law, and is not effected by the expiration of the disaster declaration.
Honoring the late Senator Bettye Davis
Senator Elvi Gray-Jackson, left, and Rep. Spohnholz, right, stand by the new plaque outside the Bettye J. Davis Committee room in the capitol building.
Last session I worked with Senator Gray-Jackson, to honor Alaska's first Black woman state representative and senator, the late Bettye Davis. We passed HCR12, which officially renamed the Health and Social Services Committee room to "The Bettye J. Davis Committee Room." Given the limited committee rooms in the capitol, many of which are already named, this was a powerful way to memorialize her life and work in our state.

The late Senator Davis was known for her fierce advocacy for the well-being of children and disadvantaged Alaskans. During her career as both a House Representative and then Senator, she became known by her colleagues as the "conscience of the legislature", as she used her voice to influence education, social issues, and economic development for all Alaskans.

Last week we hung the plaque outside the committee room in celebration of her life and Black History Month. It was much smaller and less ceremonious than we initially planned, but we hope to gather and celebrate her life next year when we can safely gather in-person.
The plaque reads:

"The Bettye J. Davis Committee Room memorializes the service and compassion of Bettye J. Davis, who served as a member of the House of Representatives from the Seventeenth through the Nineteenth Alaska State Legislatures and as a member of the Senate from the Twenty-Second through the Twenty-Seventh Alaska State Legislatures. She was the first African American woman elected to the Alaska State House of Representatives and the first African American elected to the Alaska State Senate. She served as a member of the House Health, Education, and Social Services Committee during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Alaska State Legislatures, including a term as vice-chair, and as chair of the Senate Health and Social Services Committee and vice-chair of the Senate Education Committee during the Twenty-Sixth and Twenty-Seventh Alaska State Legislatures. Her commitment to children and those living hard lives earned her recognition as the "Conscience of the Legislature." Her tireless advocacy for all Alaskans serves as an example for future generations of legislators."
Black History Month may be coming to a close, but we should always continue to listen and learn from our Black neighbors and support Black businesses in our community. The Alaska Black Caucus put together a Black Business Directory so you can find and support Black businesses in your area.
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