Lawsuit over 2000 veto takes on life of its own

Litigation continues over Knowles' veto of University of Alaska land grant

Posted: Thursday, June 17, 2004

As Alaska's governor, Tony Knowles vetoed a university land grant bill - an action he said could result in years of litigation.

Four years later, the veto has inspired a new interpretation of the Alaska Constitution, but litigation started by the veto continues beyond Knowles' administration.

The Alaska Legislative Council's June 2000 lawsuit against Knowles returned to Juneau Superior Court Wednesday, with an emphasis on the law instead of people.

Wednesday's hearing before Judge Patricia Collins was short. It concerned deadlines for filing briefs from three sides seeking to argue the case.

The focus is on the bill passed by Alaska lawmakers in March 2000 to grant up to about 260,000 acres to the University of Alaska. Knowles vetoed the bill about five weeks later.

The Legislature voted 41-19 to override the veto, exceeding the two-thirds majority normally needed. But Knowles rejected the veto. He said the proposed land grant was an appropriations bill that required four more affirmative votes for three-fourths majority required by the state constitution.

Then-state Attorney General Bruce Botelho, now Juneau's mayor, said the interpretation was based on state Supreme Court precedent.

In August 2001, Collins agreed. She granted the governor's request for summary judgment in his favor.

Collins ruled that the granted transferred public land would result in its income being dedicated to the university.

"It is therefore an appropriations bill," she wrote.

The Alaska Supreme Court said it explicitly adopted a new view when it ruled on the Legislative Council's appeal five months ago. The justices wrote that they looked at the constitutional debates and considered what the framers had in mind when they provided an enhanced requirement for the Legislature to override vetoes of appropriations bills.

"We now hold that the governor's appropriations veto applies only to monetary appropriations," the court wrote.

It determined that the people who wrote Alaska's constitution sought "to prevent popular give-away programs."

But the ruling did not decide the land-grant bill. The high court sent the case back to Collins to decide if it was constitutional.

Looking to present arguments against the constitutionality of the bill is "an intervenor" or friend of the court, an attorney from the EarthJustice Legal Defense Fund which represents the Alaska Center for the Environment, the Northern Alaska Environmental Center and the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.

Although the case still has Knowles' name on it, the Democrat is no longer involved as he runs for the U.S. Senate. The man who chaired the Legislative Council when the suit was filed in 2000, Sen. Mike Miller of North Pole, is running in the Republican primary for the same U.S. Senate seat.

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