Alaska in Turmoil Over Slash-and-Burn Budget

ANCHORAGE (CN) — Three lawsuits were filed in as many days this week against Alaska’s Republican Governor Mike Dunleavy, claiming he is violating the state constitution’s separation of powers and crippling education — and the week’s not over yet.

Dunleavy’s June slash and burn of $444 million through line-item vetoes, including essential services to education, arts, senior citizens and the court system, has state residents and the Legislature in turmoil.

An unprecedented call by Dunleavy for the Legislature to meet in special session outside the state capital ended with a split of 22 legislators meeting in Wasilla and 38 in Juneau, quashing any attempts at reaching 45 votes needed to override the vetoes. That action produced the Tuesday lawsuit from the Alaska Legislative Council.

Dunleavy ran on a platform of increasing the state’s handouts to residents from oil revenue, the “permanent fund dividend,” and rather than reduce the handouts, he effectively cut everything else.

Among the cuts:

  • a 41% cut in funding ($155 million) to the University of Alaska; University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen said that would cut 1,300 jobs;
  • a 30% cut to Health and Social Services, including a $271 million cut (40%) to Medicaid;
  • a 25% cut ($334 million) to K-12 schools;
  • a 38% cut to the Department of Transportation ($97 million);
  • a 100% cut to public radio broadcasting ($2 million).

Alaska’s Institute of Social and Economic Research estimated the budget cuts would cost the state more than 16,000 jobs. Dunleavy’s office said they would cost only 700 jobs in state and local government.

The Alaska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed the most recent lawsuit Wednesday in Anchorage Superior Court, claiming one of Dunleavy’s 182 line-item vetoes is an unconstitutional and retaliatory move against the state’s court system.

The ACLU seeks injunctive relief to reverse the $344,700 cut to the Alaska Court System by declaring it illegal under state law and a threat to the separation of powers.

“The governor’s action is so brazen and so unprecedented. All of our previous governors knew not to play politics with our judges. And so that is why we’re suing today,” ACLU of Alaska Executive Director Joshua Decker said, referring to the Wednesday lawsuit.

According to the 12-page ACLU lawsuit the veto “retaliates and seeks to punish the court system for exercising its judicial powers and seeks to undermine the independence of the judiciary.”

It cites Dunleavy’s statement in a budget document referring to the Alaska Supreme Court’s February ruling in Alaska v Planned Parenthood of the Greater Northwest, invalidating restrictions on state-funded abortions. Dunleavy said the annual cost for so-called elective abortions should be carried by the one branch upholding the policy.

“The legislative and executive branch are opposed to state-funded elective abortions; the only branch of government that insists on state-funded elective abortions is the Supreme Court. The annual cost of elective abortions is reflected by this reduction,” Dunleavy said in the budget document.

The ACLU lawsuit calls that retaliation, infringing on an independent judiciary.

“The governor cannot impermissibly interfere with the functions of another co-equal branch,” Decker said. “We also expect this case to make clear that a governor may not use the veto power to reappropriate money from one legislative appropriative function to another legislatively appropriative function.”

The ACLU filed the case on behalf of two plaintiffs, Bonnie Jack and John Kauffman, both of Anchorage.

On Tuesday, the Alaska Legislative Council sued Dunleavy in Juneau Superior Court, to compel the governor and the state commissioner of administration and the commissioner for Education and Early Development to disburse public school funding for the coming school year.

“Without disbursement of state funding to public school district, public schools across the state will not be able to open their doors for the 2019-20 school year,” the Legislative Council says in the complaint, which it filed after a 14-0 vote of its members to do so.

And on Monday, Anchorage attorneys Kevin McCoy and Mary Geddes sought to invalidate Dunleavy’s choice of Wasilla as the location for the special legislative session, and the implementation of his 182 line-item vetoes.

“No previous governor has ever called the Legislature into a special session outside of the capitol,” that complaint states. McCoy and Geddes say that in doing so Dunleavy improperly intruded on the independence of the Legislature.

“The governor gets to decide where to do his work and fulfill his responsibilities; so does the Legislature,” they said.

Dunleavy spokesman Matt Shuckerow said the governor’s office does not comment on pending litigation. However, the Monday complaint may be moot after Shuckerow issued a statement Wednesday afternoon announcing an amended call for a second legislative session to be held in Juneau, rather than Wasilla.

“In my daily discussions with legislators — those both in Wasilla and in Juneau — many have acknowledged that real progress needs to be made on the capital budget and that work cannot be completed until the legislature is meeting in one location,” Dunleavy said.

“Timelines compel us to find a solution sooner rather than later. Concluding work on the state infrastructure budget and the PFD brings the Legislature one step closer to finishing the work of the people.”

The PFD is the annual “permanent fund dividend” given to Alaskans from oil and gas revenue. Dunleavy wants to hand out $3,000 this year to each of Alaska’s 644,000 residents: roughly $1.9 billion, rather than the $1,600 per capita decreed by his predecessor Bill Walker, an Independent.

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