Governor’s office seeks court ruling over budget bill

JUNEAU — Alaska attorney general Treg Taylor filed a lawsuit on June 21 against a nonpartisan legislative agency in an attempt to resolve a dispute that is contributing to the state’s slide toward a government shutdown July 1.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy declared a proposed state budget “defective” on June 17, and the suit asks an Anchorage Superior Court judge to decide whether the governor may legally sign a budget that lacks a clause setting its start date.

Members of the Alaska Legislature have argued that he may do so, but the governor disagrees.

Taylor is requesting a speedy hearing and a decision no later than June 30, the date before the shutdown.

“What we’re trying to do is get an answer to a question that everybody has, and since the Legislature and executive branch disagree, we’re looking to the courts to get an answer,” said assistant attorney general Grace Lee, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Law.

Alaska’s fiscal year starts July 1, and in order for state services to operate past that date, the state needs to have a budget determining how much money is available to spend on those services.

Last week, Alaska’s House and Senate passed a budget, but opposition from minority Republicans in the House caused the failure of a key clause that dictates when the budget takes effect. That clause, known as the “effective date clause,” needs 27 votes in the 40-member House. It received only 23 — 21 from members of the House’s coalition majority, and two from Republicans who sit in the minority.

Without the clause, the budget takes effect in September.

Members of the coalition majority say the budget is written in such a way that if Dunleavy signs it without the effective date clause, a shutdown will be averted. The governor said last week that he believes their interpretation is wrong and that it is unconstitutional to sign it without the clause in place.

Members of the majority have accused the governor of withholding his signature in order to support the House minority. Members of the minority have asked the majority for prompt action on a fiscal plan that may have at its heart a constitutional amendment proposed by Dunleavy. The governor has denied the majority’s claims.

House Speaker Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, declined to comment on the lawsuit June 21, and Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, did not answer a phone call seeking comment.

Rep. Sara Hannan, D-Juneau, chairs the Legislative Council, which oversees the agency being sued. She said she has not yet had time to talk to attorneys.

Alaska’s constitution prohibits a sitting governor from suing the Legislature. THe suit was filed by the attorney general, not the governor, as a “public interest case,” Lee said.

But in a June 18 letter to the chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court, Dunleavy said he has “asked my attorney general to seek a determination of the issue through the Alaska Court System.” The letter goes on to request that the courts take up the issue “in the most expedited way possible.”

Chief Justice Joel Bolger responded June 21 by saying that it is inappropriate for the chief justice to talk to someone about pending litigation.

“I’m sure the attorney general’s office is familiar with the proper procedures to bring your concerns to the attention of the appropriate forum,” the chief justice wrote in a letter copied to Stutes and Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna.

Dunleavy has called the Alaska Legislature into special session beginning June 23 in Juneau to address the effective date clause and other outstanding issues.

Stutes, talking before the lawsuit was filed, said it is theoretically possible for legislators to deal with the issue in a single hour, but it may take until June 25 or even after the July 1 shutdown.

Updated: 
06/23/2021 - 10:15am