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Alaska lawmakers chop budget for Dunleavy’s ‘statehood defense’

The Alaska House Finance Committee meets in Juneau on April 2, 2024.
Eric Stone
Alaska Public Media
The Alaska House Finance Committee meets in Juneau on April 2, 2024.

Alaska lawmakers in the state House are giving a skeptical eye to Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s efforts to challenge the federal government in court.

The House Finance Committee voted 6-5 on April 2 to zero out a $2 million budget increase requested by the governor for what he describes as “statehood defense.”

Dunleavy has made challenging the Biden administration a key plank of his second-term platform. His administration has filed suit or joined lawsuits on a wide range of topics, from forest management and tailpipe emissions to firearms regulation and student debt relief.

Lawmakers have set aside $11.5 million to fund the “statehood defense” effort since 2020. The Legislature’s head budgeter, Legislative Finance Division Fiscal Analyst Alexei Painter, told the committee that the Alaska Department of Law had spent about $5 million on such cases and planned to spend at least that much over the next three years.

Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, proposed the cut. He provided a document outlining the state’s spending on statehood defense cases.

“I’ve sort of been rather public about my concerns with statehood defense and whether some of it is waste,” Josephson said.

Cases asserting the state’s ownership over navigable river and lake beds on federal lands make up about half of the statehood defense spending, according to the document Josephson provided.

Republicans on the committee strongly opposed the cut, saying they were concerned federal rules and regulations imposed unfair burdens on Alaska residents.

Rep. Will Stapp, R-Fairbanks, said he objected to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decisions limiting the use of wood stoves because of air quality concerns.

“We’re at a critical point in Fairbanks that if we lose another round of our meetings with the EPA, we will certainly have to be suing,” Stapp said. “And I want to make sure that there are available funds budgeted for statehood defense.”

The amendment passed 6-5 with the support of minority-caucus Democrats, independents, and the committee’s two rural co-chairs, Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, and Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome.

The committee’s decision is far from final. The budget is expected to change significantly as it continues to move through the House and, later, to the Senate.

The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The state filed its latest federal complaint on April 1, accusing the United States Department of the Interior missing deadlines on Freedom of Information Act requests related to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the proposed Ambler Road.

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