Constitution is clear on spending requirements

Posted: Wednesday, January 03, 2001

The following editorial was published in Friday's Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

It's not uncommon to hear longtime Alaskans declare, in no uncertain terms, that our constitution only requires state spending on schools, or public safety, or resource management.

The interpretation tends to vary according to the readers's own priorities.

Years of wrangling over budgets as co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, gave then-Sen. Steve Frank a pragmatic view of the Alaska Constitution's guidelines. The constitution means "whatever 11 members of the Senate and 21 members of the House say it does," the senator once observed, citing the "wiggle room" it provides in many areas concerning government's responsibilities.

Take Article VII, the Alaska Constitution's Health, Education and Welfare clause. In addition to the oft-cited language about establishing and maintaining public schools, Frank was fond of pointing out, Section 5 of that same article states: "The legislature shall provide for public welfare."

That "shall" is a legal umbrella covering a world of state programs and potential spending commitments.

The state's role in public health is defined in similar open-ended terms: "The legislature shall provide for the promotion and protection of public health."

Frank, who retired from office in 1996, no longer faces the burden of balancing public expectations against state priorities and revenues. One of those to whom that task now falls, Rep. Jim Whitaker, recently turned to the constitution seeking guidance concerning the state's spending on schools, roads and other public works.

He came across a glaring deviation from the appropriation rules spelled out in Article IX, the Constitution's Funding and Taxation clause. Section 16, which many Alaskans might be surprised to learn limits state spending at roughly $6 billion in current dollars, also states: "at least one-third shall be reserved for capital projects and loan appropriations."

Whitaker takes that to mean that Alaska ought to be spending $1 billion or more on annual maintenance and construction. Yet, this year, he notes, the state's capital budget was closer to $75 million, a pittance compared to what the constitution requires.

The language addressing capitol budgets was adopted as part of a constitutional amendment in the early 1980s, when the state was flush with new oil income. The formula governing public works spending was essentially ignored, a practice sanctioned in a 1983 legal opinion prepared under the auspices of then-Attorney General Norm Gorsuch.

Whitaker, who recently obtained a legal opinion backing strict interpretation of a 33-percent capital budget mandate, doesn't expect colleagues to scrap current spending plans and rush through whopping hike to the state's public works budget. He cites the higher formula spelled out in the constitution as further evidence Alaska is foolishly deficient in maintaining schools and other public buildings and infrastructure.

The state's capital budget merits a higher, more consistent, level of spending, the lawmaker declares. On that point, the Alaska Constitution's guidance is clear.

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