A ruling Friday by the Alaska Supreme Court on a 1997 seafood marketing lawsuit will prevent the governor from vetoing anti-abortion language lawmakers have linked to a budget bill, attorneys on both sides of the issue agreed.
The anti-abortion language temporarily would shut down the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services if the agency funds abortions.
The high court's decision limits the governor's veto powers on budget bills and more narrowly defines the language lawmakers may insert into spending plans.
The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit filed four years ago by the Republican legislative majority against Gov. Tony Knowles after he vetoed language in a spending plan.
In one example, lawmakers appropriated marketing money to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute but in separate conditional language forbade the agency from spending the funds unless it moved senior staff from Washington state to Alaska or reduced their salaries. Knowles vetoed the conditional language but left the appropriation.
The high court said Knowles may only strike or reduce dollar amounts in spending bills and that he can't veto conditional or intent language tied to appropriations, said assistant attorney general Jim Baldwin. Under the current spending plan, Senate Republicans funded the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services but included conditional language prohibiting the agency from spending state money on elective abortions for poor women. Under the language, the agency's entire budget would collapse if a court immediately forced the agency to fund the procedure anyway.
Knowles said two weeks ago he would use all his powers to fight the provision, but a spokesman noted it was unclear whether the governor had the power to veto the conditional language and leave only the appropriation. The ruling Friday resolved that question, Baldwin said.
"The item veto power is directed toward dollar amounts. It cannot be directed toward taking out specific language," he said.
However, the court also found some conditional language inserted by lawmakers into past spending bills went too far, said Baldwin, adding the court essentially ruled the Legislature can't use appropriations bills to enact substantive law.
"It can't use appropriations bills as a vehicle for log-rolling in other legislation that should properly be enacted in other bills," Baldwin said.
However, the ruling did not resolve whether the budget bill is the appropriate vehicle for the abortion language. In other words, it did not establish whether lawmakers went too far in the current spending bill, said Baldwin, adding that would have to be decided in a separate court action.
Legislative attorney Pamela Findley, who argued the case for Republican lawmakers, agreed.
"This decision does not clearly indicate one way or the other whether that language is constitutional," Findley told the Associated Press.
Although he had not thoroughly read the ruling Friday, Fairbanks Republican Sen. Pete Kelly tentatively supported it. Kelly pushed the abortion language saying the courts have forced the state to fund elective abortions against the will of the Republican majority. He called it a separation-of-powers fight - one he wants to have with the judicial branch, not the governor. The ruling essentially takes Knowles out of the picture, Kelly said.
"I think it gets us into the battle we need to be in, which is with the courts, not the executive branch."
Kathy Dye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org