Leg with Louie: Power-Play During a Pandemic

The Governor’s budget vetoes came through this week. The cuts were not as dramatic as some may have feared, but they were made in bad faith. The Legislature put together their budgets working tirelessly under the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, putting their health and safety at risk in doing so, while maintaining good communication with the Administration throughout the process. The Governor had an option - he could have signed the budget, which would have allowed funding for certain COVID-19 relief items to move forward in the near term, honoring the work and judgment of the Legislature in this emergency. Instead, he decided to inflict vetoes on the state targeting the Marine Highway, Homeless assistance, the Courts, the University, Education, slowing aid in a time of dire need with the promise to backfill some vetoes with federal dollars when the estimated $1.23 billion hits Alaska.

To fight the vetoes, the Legislature, now in recess for the safety of themselves, their families, and their staff, would be forced to ignore the statewide shelter in place order and assemble as a body. This is not safe or likely to happen. So we are trapped, relying on the fiscal judgment of this Administration to re-shape parts of the operating budget according to their judgment, and that is a downright sobering place to be right now considering the starkly ideological posture of the Governor.  

Alaska’s constitution affords the executive with a lot of power. In his excellent analysis “Alaska’s Constitution: A Citizen’s Guide” Dr. Gordon Harrison explains the rationale:

Few state constitutions grant as much authority to the Governor as does Alaska’s. This is because most of the other constitutions were written with a history of tyrannical or corrupt executives in mind. Alaska’s experience was different. Here, historically, government authority was diffuse and remote from the people. Alaska’s territorial Governor was an employee of the U.S. Department of the Interior appointed by the U.S. president; he shared executive authority with large federal bureaucracies; and his influence was deliberately diluted by the territorial Legislature through its creation of commissions or elected offices to oversee administrative functions which fell within its purview. The delegates sought to remedy these defects with a hierarchical administrative system superintended by one elected official. 

Also, at the time of the convention, strong executives were the progressive constitutional ideal (they remain so today). They localize political accountability (when things go awry, there is someone to blame), and they facilitate the management of large organizations. Strong executive powers were the centerpiece of the National Municipal League’s Model State Constitution, and they were recommended in studies prepared for the Alaska constitutional convention. Two recent constitutions of the day, those of New Jersey (1947) and Hawaii (1950), created strong executives. Indeed, the key provisions of Article III, Sections 22-25, which create a centralized administrative structure directly accountable to the Governor, follow closely the New Jersey and Hawaii precedents.” - page 75

The ability to line-item veto and line item reduce specific budget items is a huge authority. The requirement that the Legislature attains a ¾ supermajority to override a governor’s veto both hamstrings the Legislature and bolsters the power of the executive.  

Today we are in a situation where the Governor has both line-item vetoed and line item reduced over $260 million in operational funding. He has also verbally promised to re-write sections of the budget (unrelated to coronavirus relief, like school district construction reimbursement) through the use of some of the COVID-19 federal monies coming to Alaska. There is legal uncertainty surrounding the Administration’s claims that it can legally backfill portions of the vetoed money.  

From here, it looks like a power grab. Programs were funded by the Legislature to immediately deal with needs in Alaska. The Governor did not have to cut Public Broadcasting in a time of emergency or the Court system, or the Oil Spill Prevention and response budget, or the Cold Climate Housing Research Center, or funds specifically allocated to assist in COVID-19 municipal response, and assistance to the Homeless population. But he did, and now we are asked to trust this Administration to put the pieces together again in some fashion with federal monies that may or may not be allowed for use on the vetoed or reduced programs.  

Here are lists of the recent vetoes >>        

How will the estimated $1.25 billion in federal aid be used? This is a question that will unfold in the days ahead. The Legislature could ultimately be compelled to re-assemble despite the risks, given the lack of administrative transparency surrounding the use of federal aid, or to approve additional state COVID-19 response strategies.

On Wednesday, April 15, from 1-2:30 p.m., Native Peoples Action, Native Movement, Fairbanks Climate Action Coalition, AKPIRG, and the Alaska Center are co-hosting a videoconference event to discuss the budget vetoes and what lies ahead with invited members of the Alaska Legislature. Plan to tune in with your questions.

Have a good safe weekend!

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