Attorney general says school funding plan is unconstitutional

Assistant Attorney General Cori Mills responds to a reporter's question during a press availability regarding a dispute over school funding, May 9, 2019. Matt Shuckerow, Gov. Mike Dunleavy's press secretary, is on the right. (Photo by Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO and Alaska Public Media)
Assistant Attorney General Cori Mills responds to a reporter’s question during a press availability regarding a dispute over school funding on Thursday in the Alaska State Capitol. Matt Shuckerow, Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s press secretary, is on the right. (Photo by Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO and Alaska Public Media)

A disagreement between the Legislature and Gov. Mike Dunleavy over school funding may be heading toward a constitutional showdown — one that could affect whether the state sends money to school districts.

The budget bills passed by the House and Senate this year didn’t include any money for schools. That’s because last year, the legislature passed two years of school funding.

But Attorney General Kevin Clarkson issued a legal opinion on Wednesday saying last year’s law is unconstitutional. Assistant Attorney General Cori Mills explained why Clarkson wrote the opinion.

“We have very strong language in our constitution about having an annual process where all programs compete for funding,” Mills said. “And so the significant legal question here is: Can a Legislature bind a future Legislature and future governor by appropriating future revenues?”

Dunleavy said Tuesday during a session streamed on Facebook that he wouldn’t veto the school funding if the Legislature includes it in this year’s budget bill. That’s important because Dunleavy originally proposed a 25 percent cut to education.

“Although we had initially proposed reductions in education, what we’ve said to legislative leadership is that … put the funding in, make sure there’s funding in the budget, and we will not veto that funding in any form or fashion,” he said. “We will let that funding go through.”

While Dunleavy said he wouldn’t veto education funding, he hasn’t ruled out other line-item vetos.

Dunleavy said that without money in this year’s budget bill, the state won’t be able to send money to school districts starting in July. But lawmakers aren’t budging.

House Speaker Bryce Edgmon said the governor is needlessly confronting the Legislature.

“It just seems that a fight is being picked where a fight doesn’t exist,” he said. “It’s very clear that the Legislature has the power to appropriate is as much as the governor has a right to veto. And we’re going to stand behind our decision to appropriate education funding, which we did the last couple of years.”

Edgmon said he expects the Legislature to stand its ground, even if the governor calls a special session on the issue. Both sides have expressed concern about the precedent it would set if they don’t prevail.

Most years, the Legislature only funds the coming budget. But Edgmon said lawmakers believe last year’s law is similar to other laws from the past, including one in 2014.

“We think … looking at the body of evidence, the long series of case history that supports what the Legislature did, that clearly we did what we have been able to do for a long time,” Edgmon said.

Assistant Attorney General Mills said the 2014 law was different because it spent money the Legislature already had in hand on a future school budget, while the 2018 law appropriated money that the state didn’t have yet.

Andrew Kitchenman

State Government Reporter, Alaska Public Media & KTOO

State government plays an outsized role in the life of Alaskans. As the state continues to go through the painful process of deciding what its priorities are, I bring Alaskans to the scene of a government in transition.

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