Gov. Mike Dunleavy's claim that forward funding education is unconstitutional has been rejected by a Juneau Superior Court judge.
Judge Daniel Schally issued a summary judgment Thursday stating that the Dunleavy administration has "violated their duty to faithfully execute the law by failing to execute the forward-funding appropriations at issue according to the statutory funding procedures."
This ruling signals a significant victory for the Legislature, which sued the governor and two other members of his administration July 16.
Attorney General Kevin Clarkson, who issued a legal opinion in May backing the governor's stance on the issue, said he plans to appeal.
"This decision upends the appropriations process as we know it and could lead to one Legislature and governor setting the budget five, six or more years in advance,” Clarkson said in a statement. “This issue is too important not to appeal and get final guidance from the Alaska Supreme Court, so we all know going forward what the rules are."
In his Thursday judgment, Schally dispelled the allegation that forward funding hobbles future Legislatures, noting that each year's Legislature is able to vote to amend funding passed the previous session.
Fairbanks Republican Rep. Bart LeBon, a member of the House Finance Committee, said Friday he agrees with that interpretation.
"It's still subject to annual consent by the Legislature," LeBon said. "If you don't want to accept what's been forward-funded, any one of us can make a motion, it has to carry and there's of course a vote, but the door is not closed. It's subject to confirmation in subsequent years."
The 10-page judgment explained away Dunleavy's claim that the forward funding violated his constitutional right to veto. Schally specifically noted that Dunleavy's veto power isn't relevant because the forward funding was signed into law by Gov. Bill Walker prior to Dunleavy taking office.
"The governor in 2018 had the opportunity to veto the appropriations but chose not to," the judgment reads. "It is possible to say that the 2018 appropriations curtailed to a degree the 2019 Legislature's control over the appropriated money from the general fund. But the 2019 Legislature certainly had the power to amend or repeal the appropriations at issue before their effective dates with a simple majority vote in both houses."
The governor released a statement Friday afternoon saying he doesn't plan to cut education.
“Alaskans need to know this court case is about the process lawmakers are using to fund education, not about how much funding education receives,” the statement reads. “K-12 education spending has not been cut, nor will it be cut, regardless of what the courts ultimately decide. This case is about the concept of future funding of education and the appropriation process in general, and I look forward to clarifying this issue."
Schally also issued an injunction requiring the governor to disperse the previously approved funding as the Legislature had planned. The injunction prohibits the Dunleavy administration from "withholding or impounding" the funding and required the administration to provide the Legislative Council a specific account of the distribution of funds.
As part of the decision to jointly enter into the litigation, both the Legislative Council and the governor agreed to continue distribution of funding to Alaska's school districts as it would normally be while the lawsuit was considered.
The Fairbanks North Star Borough School District reported having received funding as regularly scheduled in August.
School district spokeswoman Yumi McCullough confirmed that the district was not "adversely affected" while the case was ongoing but said the district was pleased with the court decision.
"In today’s challenging economic environment, forward funding provides some level of certainty and stability that is vital to public education," she wrote in a Friday email to the Daily News-Miner. "Stable funding helps alleviate some of the stress that teachers and staff feel during budget time which in turn assists the district in keeping employees. As a result, students benefit from a learning environment that is consistent and reliable."
McCullough said the district hopes the governor will work with the Legislature to continue forward funding education.
Dunleavy had previously proposed earlier in the 2019 session cutting K-12 education by approximately 25% before backing away from the cut following public and legislative backlash.
The governor is set to release his proposed fiscal 2021 state operating budget by Dec. 15.
This case is one of at least three pending lawsuits against the governor, One alleges the governor violated the Alaska Constitution by vetoing funding from the courts as a punishment for a previous ruling on abortion funding and another is fighting the governor and attorney general's stance on the collection of union dues from state employees..
Contact staff writer Erin McGroarty at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.