With new lawsuit, Alaska Gov. Dunleavy’s administration escalates budget feud with legislators

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy follows Attorney General Treg Taylor into a news conference at the governor’s Anchorage office in 2019. Taylor was deputy attorney general at the time. (Nat Herz / Alaska Public Media)

Alaska Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy has said he won’t sign the budget passed by the state Legislature, citing lawmakers’ failure to garner the two-thirds support needed to make the spending plan take effect at the start of the fiscal year — rather than two months later.

But in spite of Dunleavy’s refusal to sign the document, his attorney general filed a lawsuit against the Legislature on Monday — saying that if he does sign the budget bill and lawmakers keep paying legislative employees before the measure takes effect, it would be illegal.

“When there is a dispute between branches of government, we need the courts to step in,” Attorney General Treg Taylor said in a prepared statement.

Taylor said that both the legislative branch and the executive branch “need clarity now” from the courts about whether the state can spend money on government workers and services before the budget bill officially takes effect.

Legislative leaders say it can, citing past legal opinions from attorneys general. But Dunleavy and his administration argue that it can’t, and he’s called lawmakers back to Juneau this week to pass a new, non-”defective” version of the budget that can draw the two-thirds majority votes needed in the House and Senate for it to take effect at the start of the fiscal year July 1.

Related: State workers receive layoff notices as governor calls Legislature’s budget ‘defective’

Nonetheless, Taylor’s lawsuit is asking the courts to rule on a hypothetical: If Dunleavy signs the previous version of the budget passed by the Legislature — House Bill 69 — and legislative support staff continue issuing paychecks to workers from that branch of government, would it be legal? Dunleavy’s administration has already warned executive branch employees that they will be laid off unless lawmakers pass a new version of the budget.

“The executive and legislative branches need clarity now from the courts as to whether the governor can, if the bill is enacted, spend money immediately despite HB 69 not taking effect until 90 days after enactment,” Taylor said in his statement.

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Democratic lawmakers reacted to the lawsuit with both confusion and frustration.

“This is bizarre,” said Juneau Democratic Sen. Jesse Kiehl. “The Legislature’s going to come back this week and try to get this settled — I don’t think there’s time to run to a judge.”

State Sen. Jesse Kiehl (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Before Taylor filed the lawsuit, Dunleavy also wrote a letter Friday directly to Joel Bolger, the Alaska Supreme Court’s chief justice, asking him to resolve the dispute “in the most expedited way possible.”

“Alaskans need, and deserve, a budget that meets constitutional requirements,” Dunleavy said.

Bolger issued a terse, one-paragraph response Monday, saying that he’s barred from discussing issues outside of a courtroom with any party “to an impending legal matter.”

“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,” Bolger wrote.

The letters were first reported by the Alaska Landmine.

Kiehl said he was satisfied by Bolger’s response.

“At least the court system cares about fairness and a decent process that involves everybody,” he said.

Nathaniel Herz is an Anchorage-based journalist. He's been a reporter in Alaska for a decade, and is currently reporting for Alaska Public Media. Find more of his work by subscribing to his newsletter, Northern Journal, at natherz.substack.com. Reach him at natherz@gmail.com.

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