The University of Alaska will see a cut of $70 million over three years according to a compact inked between Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy and Board of Regents Chair John Davies this week. In a bit of paternalistic phrasing, the compact says Dunleavy will “propose, support, and permit” the outlined funding levels.
It allowed the university system to escape the existential threat posed by the $135 million in cuts the governor had created with his veto pen, but it raised alarms for many legislators who saw it as yet another attempt by the governor to consolidate budgeting power and lock out legislators.
“Governor Dunleavy simply doesn’t get it. We operate in a democracy where there are specific roles of each branch of government,” said Sen. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, in a prepared statement. “The legislature is the appropriating branch, and Governor Dunleavy cannot constitutionally make appropriation deals that bind future legislatures. It circumvents Alaska’s respected constitution and the public process.”
House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, said he’s still concerned about future cuts to the university and issued a statement that said, “I firmly stand by the legislature’s role as the appropriating body.”
Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, told the Anchorage Daily News that she was concerned that the agreement seemed to ignore the Legislature’s role in the budgeting process.
“That’s the Legislature’s lane,” she said. “I don’t know that he thought it through when he wrote ‘propose, support and permit.’”
The statements wary about the governor’s agreement with the university—which Kawasaki told the ADN amounted to “extortion”—are with good reason. At many turns throughout his time in office, the governor has sought to limit the power of the Legislature and consolidate power around himself.
In his own administration, Dunleavy has consolidated power around the Office of Management and Budget Director Donna Arduin. One of his first steps in office was to sign—and not immediately publish—an executive order that moved every department’s budget specialist into Arduin’s office. It’s created a disconnect between departments and their budgets, often leaving the Legislature in the dark about the budget.
The Arduin-prepared budget also included provisions that would have allowed the Office of Management and Budget to shuffle around funds within each department after the Legislature signs off on the budget. If those lines had been allowed to go into law, it would have effectively removed the Legislature’s ability to appropriate money into specific programs.
The authority was never entertained by the Legislature and were summarily removed from the budget bills.
There’s also the matter of his proposed constitutional amendments. He’s seeking a strict spending limit as well as a change that would completely overhaul—and undermine—the Legislature’s ability to raise revenue as well as the initiative process. The legislation would require any taxes created by the Legislature through or by the public through the initiative process to be approved by the other.
Both are attempts to box in the Legislature’s authority on the budget.
Dunleavy has set the stage for a legal battle over the Legislature’s authority to create multi-year budgets when it comes to K-12 education (a move done in the 2017 session that spared K-12 funding from any vetoes this year). He argues that the Legislature can’t approve multi-year appropriations unless it has the money in-hand for the years it covers.
Now, he’s proposing a multi-year plan to cut the University of Alaska, effectively binding the Legislature without any formal process.
Of course, the agreement between the University of Alaska and Dunleavy doesn’t carry the binding force of law. It can’t and won’t stop the Legislature from holding onto the reins of its constitutional role as the appropriating branch of government.
The governor’s drawn-out tour of “restoring” his vetoes is only possible because of the Alaska Legislature, using its power of appropriation, put the money back.