Legal opinion: Governor can't tie strings to budget

Murkowski staffer says intent was to spur cities toward sound financial management

Posted: Friday, July 22, 2005

Gov. Frank Murkowski does not have the power to attach conditions to grants awarded by the state Legislature, a recent legal opinion says.

The separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches means that neither the governor nor his executive branch can place additional conditions on the payment of municipal grants that are appropriated by the Legislature, says the July 18 opinion from the Legislative Affairs Agency. A specific code of state law precludes any possibility of that happening, the opinion says.

"When the Legislature has set out a clear statutory program, there is no room for the executive branch to supplement the provisions of the statutes," reads the opinion by legislative counsel George Utermohle.

Murkowski, in signing the capital budget on July 1, said he would allow certain appropriations made to several rural municipalities only if specific conditions were met. For example, Angoon could keep its funding for a fire truck and a search-and-rescue boat only if the city started a worker's compensation insurance program.

Other conditions included the villages paying off their financial liabilities to the state or federal government and the local governments taking over operations and maintenance of programs.

Cheryl Frasca, Murkowski's budget director, said the conditions Murkowski placed on the grants were no different from those normally placed on municipal grants by the Department of Commerce and Economic Development. She said it was the administration's intent to execute the law and compel the local governments to practice good financial management.

"That was the point of it. We could have vetoed that money instead but we didn't want to do that," Frasca said.

Frasca declined to comment on specific points made by Utermohle, saying the governor's office would ask the departments of Law and Commerce to evaluate the opinion.

Division of Community Advocacy Director Mike Black said in a statement that Murkowski's conditions were just a reinforcement of grant stipulations already required by state law, and the department had recommended the governor offer that reinforcement through his capital budget transmittal letter.

"It is what we've been doing for a long time and it just makes sense," said department spokeswoman Jennifer Payne.

Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, who requested the legal opinion, said there was no room for equivocation. Elton said he expected Murkowski to seek his own legal advice but he predicted the governor would have no choice but to reverse himself.

"I'm just anticipating the governor is going to do the right thing," Elton said.

In Angoon, Mayor Walter Jack said he would take no action based on the opinion and that he agreed with Murkowski's position. He said the community of 480 has sent in an application for worker's compensation insurance, the condition the governor set on the village receiving $237,000 in grant money.

He said his government was being responsible with the state funds allocated it, but he wished to stand clear of the political debate and not jeopardize any future funding the village will need to keep running.

"We see future funds. That's why I don't want to offend anybody in any way," he said.

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