This year is an Alaska legislative session where an historic change is being sought through Governor’s Dunleavy’s downsized government budget outline. The Executive’s sword is sharply crossed with the Legislature already.
So, this month’s article will go for a broader look than the usual business law focus made here, to address this vast, monumental divide between the Legislature and the Governor.
Given the Governor’s veto authority, what can be expected from a May showdown between the Executive and the Legislature?
The Presidency and all 50 governors have veto authority over every bill that passes the legislature. The US Constitution and almost all States constitutions require a 2/3rds vote of the legislature to override executive vetoes.
If a bill’s veto is not overridden, nothing becomes law. If the vetoed legislation is a big part of the budget for the year, then new bills need to be hurriedly passed to avoid a government shutdown due to the absence of new funding for the year.
However, such is not the case at all in Alaska.
Section II, Article 15 of the Alaska Constitution has from the State’s inception allowed for a line-item veto authority as well, one that is of the most potent form.
What exactly is a line-item veto?
Line-item veto authority is typically limited to budget bills, as it is in Alaska. Also, for budget measures only, many States, including Alaska, raise a higher bar for overriding the line-item veto, a three-quarters majority of the legislature sitting as a single body rather than only a two-thirds majority. Alaska Constitution, Article II, Section 16
Line-item veto authority is a power that forty state governors possess as a shield against wasteful “logrolling” by the legislature that blows up the budget numbers. The line-item veto of a provision or several provisions of a bill allows the rest of the bill to be passed into law. If the line veto of a provision is not overridden by the legislature in most States, that item remains unfunded. The veto, in effect, becomes a zero appropriation for that one item.
If the vetoed item is important enough, the legislature can hurriedly pass something with a lower budget figure that the governor will sign off on.
However, in nine States, including Alaska, the line-item budget authority is far grander.
The Alaska governor is empowered to simply place a lower budget figure on the vetoed item making it now part of the law as passed. This makes all of the tactical difference in the balance of powers.
First, there can be no even partial government shutdown since the budget is being passed into law in any event, just with some lower figures.
Indeed, by law the Alaska Legislature is duty bound to recess for the year after the budget is passed.
So, the biggest political hammer is not available against the Alaska governor, a case critical shutdown situation. The crisis is quickly passed and over forever.
Second, the governor becomes the writer of the budget to the full extent he or she may wish to become. All the governor needs to determine the figure for every appropriation in the budget is to hold in line more than 25% of the legislature to sustain his or her vetoes. In Alaska that is 16 of 60 votes.
No Alaska governor has ever engaged the legislature seriously with a line-veto authority war affecting most of the budget. It is obvious though which side is expected to win. Both Alaska houses are majority Republican presently by party label.
Yet, one could see an Alaska Legislature this year, bound so tightly to the status-quo, put together a massive veto override bill that ends up be logrolled to the needed 75% veto override majority. Does that mean the Legislature wins in the end after all?
The big flaw in this plan is that the Alaska Constitution is silent concerning whether line-item veto overrides can be patched into a single override bill. Or must each vetoed item be voted upon separately by the Legislature?
This point also makes all of the difference when it comes to successful legislative logrolling. Everyone has to have their “juice” in order to make it work.
This unanswered question concerning the Legislature’s authority could therefore become a constitutional crisis this year: One to be quickly decided by the Alaska Supreme Court should the battle go that far.
So, hold onto your hats this political summer. Big events are on the move.
Stephen Merrill, Atty.
THE ALASKA BUSINESS BLOG