Gov. Mike Dunleavy has stated that he does not have proper authority to release funds appropriated for education by the previous Legislature, so he thinks the Legislature needs to include education funding in the fiscal 2020 budget. His contention is based on a Department of Law review of House Bill 287 that concluded: “last year’s appropriation for FY20 K-12 education spending improperly binds a future Legislature and future governor in contravention of the annual budgeting process and violates the constitutional prohibition against dedicating revenue.”
Some, apparently including the majority caucuses controlling the House and Senate, believe the governor is simply “playing politics” and holding education funds hostage to achieve a political goal.
That the executive and legislative branches occasionally hold conflicting views regarding constitutional requirements is understandable. But the following sequence of events pertaining to education funding indicates the Dunleavy administration is trying harder to resolve the dispute without causing unnecessary disruption of education funding than the Legislature:
The Dunleavy administration notified the Legislature this past February of its concern and recommended including an appropriation for education in the fiscal 2020 budget to resolve the situation. But the Legislature’s legal counsel advised them no further action was required to fund education for fiscal 2020 because the HB 287 appropriation complied with the Alaska Constitution, so the Legislature did not accept the administration’s recommendation.
Attorney General Kevin Clarkson sent a letter to legislative leaders in April outlining the administration’s legal concerns and issued a formal opinion on the matter May 8, a week before the Legislature was scheduled to adjourn. The Legislature’s legal counsel’s opinion still has not been made public.
Gov. Dunleavy also made the following public statement May 8: “Although we initially proposed reductions in education, we have said to legislative leadership ‘put the funding in, make sure there’s funding in the budget and we will not veto that funding in any form or fashion.’ We will let that funding go through, so we can have that conversation going into next year on what reforms we want to look at in education.”
The Legislature failed to pass a budget or resolve the education funding issue before the 120-day session limit expired, so Gov. Dunleavy called for a special session May 16. He also introduced HB 1001 to enable resolving the constitutional dispute without disrupting education funding.
The House Finance Committee held a hearing on HB 1001 on May 20 where the administration and the Legislature’s legal counsel testified on their respective positions. The administration’s position appeared to be more on point than the argument presented by the Legislature’s legal counsel. The committee has yet to move the bill and its legal counsel’s written opinion still hasn’t been posted for public review.
HB 1001 presents a reasonable compromise. It would not completely resolve the legal dispute, but it would remove the cloud over education funding for the upcoming year by replacing the questionable appropriation with an appropriation that clearly complies with the Alaska Constitution. Furthermore, Gov. Dunleavy’s public statement that he would not exercise his line-item veto authority if the Legislature put education funding in the budget assures school districts and local governments that they can move forward with their budget planning and avoid sending out the disruptive layoff notices, which are technically, if not legally, overdue because of the current funding uncertainly.
I understand the Legislature’s desire to assert its legal position. However, considering that the governor has presented a way to avoid the chaos that could ensue if the entire education appropriation was held up by an extended legal battle, it seems unnecessary and unwise for the Legislature to refuse his compromise.
The Legislature should pass HB 1001. The legislative and executive branches could then focus on resolving their dispute without either of them being accused of holding the public education system hostage, and the rest of us could get on with our lives.
Mike Prax lives in North Pole. He is a former member of the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly.