Confusion over school bond bill means no special election for Juneau schools

The Marie Drake Building was built in 1965 and hasn't gone through any major renovations since. Juneau schools Superintendent Mark Miller says that's not changing any time soon. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
The Marie Drake Building was built in 1965 and hasn’t gone through any major renovations since. Juneau schools Superintendent Mark Miller says that’s not changing any time soon. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

The Juneau School District will no longer be advocating for a special election on a $21 million school bond to renovate the Marie Drake Building. This comes after Gov. Bill Walker let a bill stopping state reimbursements for school renovations become law. The Anchorage School District, on the other hand, already had its election and still expects to be reimbursed.

Even though Gov. Walker allowed the bill to become law, he didn’t sign it. In a Friday letter to Senate President Kevin Meyer, Walker wrote about the public’s confusion regarding the bill’s effective date and the bill’s retroactive clause. He says he supports efforts to reduce the state budget, but would’ve preferred that “this have been done in a manner more understandable for Alaskans.”

Even Alaskans inside the Capitol building were confused. Two weeks ago, Juneau Rep. Sam Kito III explained:

“When the bill takes effect, the retroactivity clause will still take place. The bill’s retroactivity kicks in to Jan. 1.”

But Laura Pierre said something entirely different. Pierre is chief of staff to Eagle River Sen. Anna MacKinnon, co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, which sponsored the bill.

“The retroactivity failed so it wouldn’t be retroactive to Jan. 1,” Pierre said.

According to Assistant Attorney General Cori Mills, “The retroactivity clause and the effective date are two different legal items in a bill.”

And she says they have nothing to do with each other. “The effective date is 90 days from when it’s enacted by the governor,” which in this case is July 23.

The confusion likely stems from when the House of Representatives failed to pass an effective date clause, which Mills says would’ve made the bill effective immediately.

“The retroactivity clause is not a part of the effective date, was not a part of the vote,” says Mills. “It’s within the bill and it has to be called out and so that’s why it has its own provision for retroactivity, and the retroactivity applies regardless of the effective date. So although the effective date is 90 days from last Friday, the bill will be retroactive to Jan. 1, 2015.”

A letter from Attorney General Craig Richards to Gov. Walker dated April 16 says, “If a municipality holds a bond election after January 1, 2015, under the bill, the state would not provide debt reimbursement to the municipality.”

Juneau Schools Superintendent Mark Miller got a copy of that letter on Monday.

“What’s very clear is that whether we have an election or not, the state will not be giving us money for any portion of that bond,” Miller says.

The Juneau School Board wanted the city to hold a special election in June to take advantage of state’s current debt reimbursement program, which would’ve covered up to 70 percent of a $21 million debt.

With all the new information, Miller now thinks a special election would be pointless. He says the district will slow down on the renovation process and figure out a way to phase it in.

The Anchorage School District is moving forward with renovations to eight schools. During the city’s regular April 7 election, voters approved a $59.3 million general obligation bond.

Anchorage schools Chief Operating Officer Mike Abbott says the district got confirmation from the state in December that the renovations were eligible for reimbursements.

“It’s our understanding that our 2015 school bond will be eligible for debt reimbursement,” Abbott says.

Abbott learned of the bill’s retroactive clause on Tuesday.

“We clearly need to work with the governor’s office and likely the AG to make sure they understand why we don’t think that the retroactivity should apply in this case,” Abbott says.

Even without state reimbursement, Abbott says the district is still moving forward with selling the bond.

“We are clear with voters, and we always have been, that the property taxpayers of Anchorage are on the hook for the entire obligation,” he says.

Abbott hopes, and expects, the state will maintain its commitment to the debt reimbursement obligation, but he says there’s no guarantee.

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