What others say: Governor slips up on education lawsuit

Take note, Fairbanks. Gov. Sean Parnell doesn’t much like it that the Ketchikan Gateway Borough has filed a lawsuit to invalidate the requirement in state law that local governments contribute funds to help pay the cost of K-12 education.

Ketchikan argues that the funding requirement punishes the state’s incorporated areas while unincorporated areas have their education costs paid in full by the state. The Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly is considering joining the lawsuit. Mayor Luke Hopkins supports Ketchikan’s contention.

The governor had some threatening words about the lawsuit in an interview this week with the Ketchikan Daily News:

“I do want to address this issue of how the lawsuit is viewed by legislators and by me because it does shade or color the reaction to Ketchikan requests,” he told the newspaper. “It’s an inevitable consequence that if Ketchikan is the driving force behind a lawsuit that could result in more financial exposure to the state, legislators and I view requests from Ketchikan through that lens.”

Sounds like a threat against Ketchikan. You file a lawsuit, you risk unfavorable treatment when we review your budget requests. By extension, that’s something that Fairbanks should be aware of — and that we should make known to the governor isn’t the correct way to conduct business.

By Friday evening, the governor was modifying his statement. His press office issued a clarification.

“Let me be clear: In no way, shape or form, will I or my administration use the pending education lawsuit as a basis to punish or single out a specific community or region of the state.”

“Unquestionably, this lawsuit presents financial uncertainty to the state, estimated at several hundred million dollars annually. While everyone has a right to their day in court, it is reasonable to assume that lawmakers would view funding requests through the lens of that financial risk, and the lawsuit.”

So, earlier in the week it was the governor saying how the lawsuit would be viewed “by legislators and by me.” On Friday, it was “In no way” will “I or my administration” use the lawsuit as a means of punishing communities.

Which is the real position? You can bet that Ketchikan and any community that supports it, including Fairbanks, will be watching the budget process more closely than usual through the remainder of this legislative session to gauge which is the real position.

The governor’s remarks shouldn’t dissuade support for Ketchikan. The borough makes a good argument.

Article 1, Section VII of the Alaska Constitution puts responsibility for education squarely with the state: “The legislature shall by general law establish and maintain a system of public schools open to all children of the State, and may provide for other public educational institutions.”

The Constitution doesn’t say that organized local governments such as Ketchikan and Fairbanks are to contribute to the maintaining of that system.

Let’s hope that Gov. Parnell is true to his revised statement and that neither he nor anyone in his administration seeks to punish Ketchikan or any of its municipal supporters for exercising their right to seek a change through the judicial system. And let’s hope, too, that legislators behave in the same manner.

— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Feb. 8

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