JUNEAU — In a Facebook Live broadcast Tuesday evening, Gov. Mike Dunleavy conditionally renounced plans to cut K-12 education funding, saying he will not veto money from the state’s education budget if lawmakers abandon plans to fund schools in advance.
In a pair of interviews Wednesday morning, Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, and Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, said the House and Senate majorities are united in rejecting the governor’s plan. They intend to keep funding approved last year.
“The majority is standing firm on our appropriation authority. We forward-funded last year for this year,” Giessel said, referring to the 2020 fiscal year.
The governor has a different interpretation. In a press release late Wednesday, he said last year’s move is invalid, and without a replacement, lawmakers threaten to leave schools unfunded. Beginning July 1, with the state’s new fiscal year, “it would set up a scenario where education funds would not be transferred or paid out.”
In 2018, as part of a session-ending budget deal, lawmakers approved legislation funding K-12 schools in 2019 and 2020. House Bill 287 states in part, “the amount necessary to fund the total amount for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2020 ... is appropriated from the general fund to the public education fund."
The law was signed by Gov. Bill Walker. Months later, Dunleavy won the general election and became governor.
Since the start of the legislative session, Dunleavy has argued that the Legislature’s forward funding is inappropriate and may be illegal. The governor contends that forward funding inappropriately locks the governor out of the appropriation process. This had been taken as an argument in favor of his ability to cut money from the education budget.
In February, the governor proposed cutting funding for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development by about $320 million, a reduction of 19%, according to figures from the nonpartisan Legislative Finance Division.
In his Facebook Live talk Tuesday night, the governor said he would not pursue those proposed cuts if the Legislature abandons the forward-funding strategy.
“Although that we had initially proposed reductions in education, what we have said to legislative leadership is … make sure that there’s funding in the budget, and we will not veto that funding in any form or fashion,” Dunleavy said. “We will let that funding go through.”
Lawmakers remain uninterested for two principal reasons.
The main idea behind forward funding, explained Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, is to avoid budget uncertainty for school districts. School districts across the state set their budgets for the coming year in the spring, but in the past few years, the Legislature has been slow to approve state operating budgets.
That has left school districts to guess how much state support they might receive, and as a precaution, many school districts have issued layoffs to teachers because the districts do not know if they will be able to afford the same number of teachers the next year.
“We’ve always had that big issue of pink-slipping teachers, of losing folks when we really need them. We’re fighting to retain our teacher corps in this state,” Stevens said.
With lawmakers appropriating money in advance last year, school districts have had a year to plan ahead, and the pink slips won’t go out — but only if the funding is left alone.
In addition, the leaders of the House and Senate say that to retreat on this issue would effectively send a message that the governor’s point of view is correct and that lawmakers do not have the ability to fund state agencies in advance.
“The Legislature has authority, and to acquiesce that authority, we feel is not what we want to do,” Giessel said.
“We don’t deviate from that viewpoint,” Edgmon said of Giessel’s comment, “and we think it’s important to uphold the Legislature’s ability to appropriate and do forward funding as it is constitutionally enabled to do.”
If neither lawmakers nor the governor change course, the matter could end up being decided by state courts. In that case, school districts would be dropped into more uncertainty as they wait to see how a judge decides the issue.
“It’s an interesting little pickle we’re in here with the governor on education,” Stevens said.