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Dunleavy pushes for PFD check, lays out $1B plan for virus response

Alaska Journal of Commerce, Anchorage — Elwood Brehmer Alaska Journal of Commerce, Anchorage

March 20-- Mar. 20--Gov. Mike Dunleavy pressed legislators in a Friday noontime address to quickly approve funding to pay Alaskans the $1,306 he says they are owed to fulfill last year's Permanent Fund dividend payments as the central piece to his administration's COVID-19 economic stabilization plan.

The governor said he has also ordered $1 billion to be transferred from existing state accounts and put into a disaster relief fund to cover a surge in unemployment payments and demand on other assistance programs indirectly caused by the virus. The state released more details on the plan later, which calls for paying the statutory PFD in two installments for 2020 -- June and October -- in addition to to the supplemental request for 2019.

"Immediate and far-reaching economic relief is needed right now, not tomorrow, not two weeks from now, but right now," Dunleavy said during a roughly 10-minute address that was streamed from his state Facebook account.

He pointed to the fact that Congress is working on an economic relief plan that includes direct payments to Americans -- up to $1,200 to many and $500 per child -- that largely mirror the PFD in urging legislators to approve the payment and said the state checks could be issued as soon as next month.

Most lawmakers have opposed full, statutory PFD payments for several years as the state has grappled with billion-dollar-plus annual deficits.

"Never in the last 40 years has the payment of the PFD been more critical," Dunleavy said.

The state is partnering with Alaska banks to provide bridge loans for small businesses that have been hurt by government-mandated closures or in other ways as health officials try to slow the spread of the virus. The bridge loans will be made at interest rates offered by the Small Business Administration, according to Dunleavy.

"The state will 100 percent guarantee these loans to ensure our lenders aren't at risk," he said.

Spokespersons for the governor's office and several local banks could not immediately provide additional details on the small business bridge loans.

While it's unclear exactly how many Alaskans have been put out of work as a result of mandated and voluntary business restrictions intended to reduce social contact, the impact is undoubtedly widespread and is expected to have a huge impact on the coming tourist season.

Division of Employment and Training Services Director Patsy Westcott wrote in an email that the state can't yet release its most recent unemployment data due to federal reporting requirements, but wrote generally that, "our claims workload has increased significantly this week and is expected to do so in the coming weeks."

The leisure and hospitality industry employed more than 44,000 people during its summer peak last year, according to the state Labor Department.

Senate Republican leaders sent out an open letter to Alaskans shortly after the governor's address ensuring them that the Legislature is exploring all the ways it can assist impacted individuals and mitigate the long-term economic damage caused by the response to the virus.

The letter does not address policy specifics, but states clearly that "No Alaskan in need will be left behind."

"This virus has wreaked havoc on the price of oil, the stock market is in retreat, and now countless workers will go without paychecks as business owners are forced to close-up shop. The uncertainty of the next weeks and months will only compound the harm to the private sector of our economy. Without a swift response, this virus could cause long-term damage beyond the health impacts," the letter states.

Senate President Cathy Giessel and Finance Committee co-chairs Sens. Bert Stedman of Sitka and Natasha von Imhof, of Anchorage signed the letter.

Dunleavy further said he signed an emergency order protecting the approximately 13,000 Alaskans that receive rental assistance from the state-owned Alaska Housing Finance Corp. He also ordered AHFC to stop rental evictions for at least 60 days and loan servicers have been authorized to grant forbearances to homeowners who have had their finances affected by the response to the virus.

On Monday, Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz ordered all bars, restaurants and entertainment facilities to close, except for drive-through, take-out and delivery services. Dunleavy ordered them closed statewide Wednesday evening through April 1.

Additionally, $75 million has been authorized to underwrite emergency health care facilities and provide health care workers with personal protective equipment. Dunleavy said another $100 million will be made available to address the added demand on state programs and workers, particularly state health workers.

"We need our state workers protected and safe and we need them to continue the functions of state government," he said.

Resources will also be set aside to help local governments deal with unexpected costs and lost sales revenue.

Dunleavy told Alaskans to expect additional economic assistance measures as well as further health mandates to attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19. State health officials reported 12 cases in Alaska when the governor made his announcement. A 13th case was confirmed shortly afterwards.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at elwood.brehmer@alaskajournal.com.

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