By James Brooks
Alaska state legislators have prefiled 58 new bills ahead of the Legislature’s Jan. 18 start, and almost a quarter of them propose to limit public and private responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thirteen bills, all introduced by Republican members of the state House or Senate, would make it more difficult for the state and private businesses to require and administer COVID-19 vaccinations or impose emergency rules during a pandemic. Many of the proposals mimic legislation that has become law in other states.
“People went home to their districts and had town halls and coffee chats and heard from constituents. The issues with COVID mandates really did rise to the top,” said House Minority Leader Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla.
A second round of prefiled legislation will be released Friday, and last week’s bill count does not include six resolutions proposing constitutional amendments.
Nationally and in Alaska, efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic have fallen along partisan lines. In October, 60% of unvaccinated Americans identified as Republicans or Republican-leaning, more than three times the proportion of Democrats.
In Alaska, Democratic-leaning cities, such as Juneau, have imposed more stringent anti-pandemic measures than Republican-leaning locations, such as the Kenai Peninsula Borough or the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. Places with a tight political divide, such as Anchorage, have seen rancorous debates.
As the Legislature prepares to convene, COVID-19 case counts are spiking, though hospitalizations have remained relatively low.
Many of the pandemic-related pieces of legislation introduced Friday are similar to measures passed by lawmakers in other states. Tilton said it’s not a coincidence; Republicans are motivated to preserve jobs, she said.
“We’re seeing things happening across the nation, trying to protect people’s employment capabilities,” she said.
Rep. David Nelson, R-Anchorage, has proposed to label religious gatherings as essential services under any statewide emergency declaration in which other services are labeled as essential. That could restrict the state’s power to limit public gatherings in an emergency. Indiana passed a similar bill last year.
Last year, state legislators lobbied regulators to allow easier access to ivermectin, the anti-parasitic sought by some Alaskans as an unproven treatment for COVID-19. A bill from Rep. Ron Gillham, R-Soldotna, would require pharmacists to fill any COVID-19 treatment prescribed by a doctor.
Last year, North Dakota, South Dakota and Arizona were among the states that passed legislation relieving pharmacists from liability if they fill prescriptions for off-label uses during the pandemic.
Other bills introduced here would directly or indirectly prohibit state officials and businesses from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for employment.
Last year, the Alaska Legislature struggled to pass any legislation dealing with COVID-19. Lawmakers approved an emergency-action bill in the spring, and Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed parts of it.
In the fall, the Alaska Senate passed a telehealth bill that would also Allow Alaskans to opt out of some vaccination requirements. That measure died in the state House, which is controlled by a predominantly Democratic coalition.
Rep. Liz Snyder, D-Anchorage, is the co-chair of the House Health and Social Services Committee, which would likely hear any legislation related to COVID-19.
She said she is still examining the prefiled bills, but she doesn’t think positions have changed in the past few months.
“I think it’s pretty split in the House,” she said. “I don’t have any information to suggest that anyone’s altered their position on that.”
Last year, her committee emphasized the public-health benefits of vaccination, masking and other preventative measures. It failed to advance proposals that would have diminished those measures.
“Just looking at the House committee and how things played out there and the composition of that committee, I think we have a pretty public-health-minded and public-health-focused committee and leadership on that committee, and that hasn’t changed either,” she said.