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Alaska Legislature

Alaska Legislature one month from education funding lawsuit against Gov. Dunleavy

  • Author: James Brooks
  • Updated: June 14, 2019
  • Published June 13, 2019

The 14-member bicameral Legislative Council meets Thursday, June 13, 2019 in the Alaska State Capitol. The council takes action for the Legislature while lawmakers are not in session. (James Brooks / ADN)

JUNEAU — A committee of the Alaska Legislature voted 14-0 on Thursday to order the Legislature’s legal services division to prepare for a lawsuit against Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

The lawsuit will be triggered July 15 if the governor’s administration does not pay K-12 school districts as ordered by the Legislature in a bill passed last year.

“In the event that the money is not disbursed by mid July as is required by statute … legal services will be prepared to undertake and file whatever pleadings are necessary to commence a lawsuit and seek a relief from the court that those funds be disbursed to school districts as intended by the Legislature,” said Megan Wallace, director of the Legislature’s legal services division.

The pending lawsuit results from a disagreement between lawmakers and governor about the Legislature’s ability to plan education funding in advance.

Last year, legislators approved House Bill 287, which calls for no cuts in the state’s per-student funding formula during the fiscal year that begins July 1. (The bill also includes a one-time $30 million bonus payment to be divided among school districts for the fiscal year.)

The governor says that bill is illegal, and he therefore cannot follow it. Unless the Legislature changes its position, he contends public schools are unfunded.

Lawmakers say that the money must be paid because legislators, not the governor, control the state’s purse. They worry that if the governor’s position is upheld, he could retroactively veto almost any legislation by declaring that it is illegal and that he cannot follow it.

Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak and chairman of the Legislative Council, said after the vote that he spoke with Attorney General Kevin Clarkson by phone, and Clarkson had said the state will make payments month by month to school districts in order to avoid affecting them while the lawsuit proceeds.

Under that approach, the Legislature would sue and obtain a court order requiring payments to continue while the lawsuit proceeds.

On Friday morning, senior assistant attorney general Cori Mills explained by email, “This would involve having a court order in place to allow education funding to be sent out on a monthly basis during the litigation, since the governor does not otherwise have the authority to issue the funds based on a prior law the attorney general has found to be unconstitutional.”

“We believe we can work together with the legislature to ensure the lawsuit proceeds as quickly as possible without impacting Alaska’s children and school districts,” Mills wrote. “In terms of the timing of the litigation, that will be up to the legislature. We will continue to work towards an amicable resolution of this case through the courts.”