Legal views conflict on Alaska school funding law

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy describes his plans for a special session on the budget, education funding and criminal justice legislation on May 15. On Monday, lawyers for the administration and Legislature gave different views on school funding. (Photo by Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO and Alaska Public Media)

An Alaska House of Representatives hearing on Monday may have offered a preview of a legal battle over state funding for public schools.

Lawyers for the Alaska Legislature and Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration offered contrasting views on whether a law enacted last year will fund schools next year — or whether a new bill is needed.

Megan Wallace is a nonpartisan lawyer for the Legislature. She said last year’s law requires the administration to send out money to school districts beginning in July.

“Until a court renders a decision invalidating those appropriations, those are binding by law, and in our opinion the governor would be constitutionally required to execute those appropriations,” Wallace said.

Assistant Attorney General Cori Mills said last year’s law is invalid. She cited Attorney General Kevin Clarkson’s opinion that it violates the state constitution’s prohibition on having funds dedicated for a specific purpose. And she said it’s also at odds with another constitutional provision governing the annual budget process.

“In terms of what this body does and what the governor chooses to do with that information now that it’s out there, you know, hopefully we can avoid litigation,” Mills said. “But if that’s necessary, we’ll have to evaluate what the options are.”

Both lawmakers and the administration have said giving up on their position would alter the checks and balances between the power of the Legislature and the governor.

Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, speaks during a House Finance Committee hearing at the Capitol in Juneau on March 26, 2019. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Andy Josephson told Mills he’s skeptical the Legislature will change its position.

“You’re trying to convince us that we’re wrongheaded about this,” he said. “And I just don’t know that there’s going to be a shift.”

Dunleavy said last week that he has a feeling there will be a lawsuit over the issue. He said the Legislature shouldn’t be able to pass appropriation laws that affect budgets more than a year in the future, like last year’s law seeks to do.

“Whether you can forward-fund two years, 10 years, 100 years; whether you can forward fund without earmarking where the funds are coming from; whether you can fund the entire budget forever without the input of future legislators or the governor, sounds a little questionable,” Dunleavy said.

Lawmakers said they could have made changes to last year’s law but chose not to.