JUNEAU — During last week’s budget debates in the Alaska House of Representatives, Republican lawmakers stood and declared that the state of Alaska is under attack from the administration of President Joe Biden. No Democratic lawmakers disputed the claim.
Now, as Alaska’s proposed state operating budget advances to the Senate, it contains $2 million for a special account designed to fund lawsuits against the federal government. Known as the “statehood defense fund,” the account was stocked with $4 million last year as state legislators fulfilled a request from Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
The governor and legislators — including some Democrats and independents — have opposed efforts by the Biden administration to limit oil and gas development on federal land, and the statehood defense fund is seen as a major tool to oppose the federal government.
“This is sort of the Defense Department of the state of Alaska,” said Rep. Mike Prax, R-North Pole. “The Biden administration has just been extremely hostile to the state of Alaska. We have no idea what they’re going to do next.”
“It seems to me to be an attack on Alaskans by the federal government,” he said.
So far, the state has used its defense fund to pay for seven lawsuits on a variety of topics, including support for federal land transfers to the state, opposition to limits on air pollution and opposition to a national moratorium on oil and gas leasing on federal land.
Several legislators said they believe oil and gas issues are the most important because oil production generates money for the state.
“More oil and gas production will solve so many problems and take so many issues off the table,” said Rep. Tom McKay, R-Anchorage.
The fund could be tapped for six more ongoing cases being funded from other accounts. Those include the state’s support for Ambler Road, the state’s support of oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the state’s support for Pebble Mine, and the state’s support of oil and gas drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve.
Jason Brune is commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and the chair of the statehood defense group for the Dunleavy administration.
“We’re talking about the ways we are constantly under attack,” he told the House Finance Committee last month.
Deputy attorney general Cori Mills said the Department of Law has had about a 30% increase in the number of federally related cases referred by state agencies.
Twelve other lawsuits that could use the fund aren’t yet ripe to file, said assistant attorney general Grace Lee, a spokeswoman for the department. The Department has not publicly identified those cases.
“I think we’re seeing it across the board,” Brune said. “The federal administration absolutely has Alaska in their sights.”
Money from the fund hires private legal firms who work on behalf of the state. Contracts worth $1.3 million have already been signed, Lee said, and another $500,000 contract is in the works. About $600,000 had actually been spent by the end of February, she said.
“The costs for these cases over two to four years will range between $3 million and $6 million. There are at least 11 anticipated cases — those total costs are estimated to be upwards of $8 million,” she said.
Dunleavy requested an additional $4 million in funding for the program when he submitted his budget to the Alaska Legislature. That money was stripped by a subcommittee, which questioned why it was needed when much of last year’s money remains available.
“It’s essentially a slush fund for the Department of Law,” said Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage and a member of the subcommittee.
Other lawmakers — including some Republicans — said that the Department of Law should approach the Legislature when it needs funding and not seek money in advance.
Despite those concerns, the House Finance Committee approved an additional $2 million, and that amount advanced from the full House.
The district of Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage, voted for Biden at a higher rate than any other district in Anchorage.
After the vote, Fields said it is “ridiculous” to say that Alaska is under attack from the Biden administration, citing the amount of economic relief and infrastructure money that Alaska is receiving.
“Having said that,” he said, “I think you can recognize the reality of our relationship with the federal government, including the federal government saving our bacon during this crisis, but also support appropriating money for litigation over development.”
Some legislators have also privately noted that this year is an election year, and Biden is relatively unpopular in Alaska.
The budget is now in the hands of the Senate Finance Commitee, and its first-draft proposal doesn’t include any additional money for the statehood defense fund.
Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, represents the oil-rich North Slope and chairs the Senate subcommittee in charge of the Department of Law’s budget.
He said the fact that the state hasn’t spent all of its available money and the state’s poor winning record in federal lawsuits contributed to the decision to leave additional money off the table.
Olson said there are clear differences between the state’s approach and the federal government’s approach, but he prefers different tactics. On Thursday, he was flying to Utqiagvik, where he and other legislators were scheduled to meet with Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. He said they intended to discuss oil and gas development issues.
“We are in a battle, but we need to choose our battles wisely,” he said.