News-Miner opinion: The question of the Legislature’s authority to appropriate future funds needs to be finally settled, and the dispute between the Legislature and Gov. Mike Dunleavy over education dollars will likely be the means by which that question is resolved.
The House and Senate voted Tuesday morning to give their leaders the authority to sue the governor if the governor refuses to release the education funds that the previous Legislature last year appropriated for fiscal 2020, which starts July 1.
It is unfortunate that education funding once again has become the subject of a potential legal battle between the two branches of government, but the fact that it has been entangled in political disagreements for so many years in a way has made it the ideal vehicle for resolving the question of the legality of future funding a portion of government. That’s because it involves so many people across the state, people who will want the matter cleared up.
The issue is this:
The 2017-18 Legislature approved education funding for fiscal 2019 and fiscal 2020. Every spring the Legislature approves a state budget for the following fiscal year, which starts July 1 of the year the budget is approved. In 2017, the Legislature approved a state budget for fiscal 2018, which started July 1, 2017, and ended June 30, 2018. In April 2018, however, the Legislature approved — and then-Gov. Bill Walker signed — education funding for two years in a separate bill, House Bill 287, with that second year of funding falling in the first year of the new, 2019-20, Legislature. It also fell in the first year of the term of a new governor.
The 2019-20 Legislature did not include fiscal 2020 education funding in its budget because, in its view, the direction to fund fiscal 2020 was given through HB 287 of the prior Legislature. Although the direction was given, the money wasn’t. The prior Legislature and governor did not set aside money for that second year of education funding.
And that is the source of the dispute. Did the 30th Alaska Legislature have the authority to appropriate education funds, using revenue from a fiscal year two years out, for a budget that would ordinarily be the purview of the 31st Alaska Legislature and a new governor?
It’s a major question of constitutional authority and is one that both sides want resolved.
The governor, through the attorney general, argues the education appropriation for fiscal 2020 is unconstitutional because it dedicates future funds for a specific purpose, does not follow the Constitution’s specified budget process and circumvents the governor’s line-item veto authority.
The governor has said, therefore, that no education funding exists for fiscal 2020, which starts in two months. He believes he has a good case.
Republican Rep. Tammie Wilson, of North Pole, made a strong point for the Legislature’s education funding position on the House floor Tuesday morning, saying in part:
“We fund our budget this way all the time, Mr. Speaker. The operating budget that will come before us will be funded with general funds that we have yet to receive, in anticipation that we will receive that,” she said. “So if the courts find we couldn’t do this, will they not find that we have to have the money already in the bank before we spend any of that?”
“To say that we never do something like that is just inaccurate.”
Whether a court agrees, we won’t know for a while — assuming the Legislature follows through with a lawsuit, as it seems destined to do.
But what we do know is that it’s time to get this issue resolved and to once and for all remove yet another way in which our state leaders seem to find ways to leave parents, teachers, and school staff and administrators facing an uncertain future.