JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Gov. Sean Parnell said Friday that he wasn't threatening the Ketchikan Gateway Borough when he said its lawsuit against the state over school funding could "shade or color" reaction to the community's requests for state money to fund infrastructure projects.
Parnell told The Associated Press that the comments he made to Ketchikan reporters about how he and lawmakers could view the borough's capital appropriations requests weren't intended to be retaliatory. The Republican governor said he simply gave an honest answer to the Ketchikan Daily News on Thursday when he said it could be hard for legislators to separate the lawsuit from boroughs' budget requests. He made similar comments to KRBD radio.
Parnell said that when he was drafting his budget request for next fiscal year, the prospect of a lawsuit was pending and he did not hold it against Ketchikan, "and wouldn't. That's just not who I am."
"Fairness and equity is a given. It's just that, there are 60 others who will be making those kinds of decisions as well," he said, referring to the Legislature's 60 members.
The lawsuit seeks to strike down required local contributions to school districts, which the borough contends are unconstitutional and result in incorporated areas being treated differently than unincorporated areas, which do not have to contribute.
A state representative from North Pole has introduced legislation that would repeal the required local contribution, and that has raised questions among some lawmakers about where that money will come from if the state has to make up for it. The fiscal note attached to the bill says the required local contribution for next year is about $230 million, and the state already is facing the prospect of digging into savings the next few years amid a decline in revenue.
Parnell told the Ketchikan Daily News on Thursday that the lawsuit "is an easy excuse" for legislators to turn down appropriation requests for Ketchikan.
"I do want to address this issue of how the lawsuit is viewed by legislators and by me, because it does shade or color the reaction to Ketchikan requests," he told the paper. "It's an inevitable consequence that if Ketchikan is the driving force behind a lawsuit that could result in more financial exposure to the state, legislators and I view requests from Ketchikan through that lens."
Senate Minority Leader Hollis French interpreted that last sentence as Parnell suggesting he would "punish" the borough if it continued with the case.
"My view is that the governor should not be making threats to a community when it's simply exercising its legal rights," said French, a Democrat from Anchorage.
Agnes Moran, a borough assembly member and a plaintiff in the case, called Parnell's comments unfortunate. She said the lawsuit was a last resort, filed after the borough tried unsuccessfully for years to have its concerns addressed.
"We go forward," she said of the case. "I refuse to live in fear of my government."
Parnell told the AP anyone can make a constitutional challenge if they feel aggrieved. But "if an individual thinks that very soon the transmission may fall out of the car, they're going to treat new investments in the car through the lens of a little more skepticism and greater scrutiny," he said. "What I was commenting on was what I'm hearing from legislators and the lens, as I said, that requests get filtered through at this point."
He declined to say which legislators have been talking that way.
"To pretend like it doesn't exist would not be honest, either," he said later. "And I've been very forthright with people when they ask me questions."
Republican Rep. Peggy Wilson, who represents Ketchikan, said she had concerns about possible fallout from the lawsuit, which she said she supported "with hesitation."
She said she will continue to work to do what she can for her communities.
Ketchikan City Mayor Lew Williams said there has been concern about how the Legislature or governor's office might respond to a lawsuit. The city itself is not part of the lawsuit, a point he stressed.
Williams said he met with Parnell about projects Thursday. He said the governor has been good to Ketchikan and he wasn't concerned with Parnell's comments. "He's just probably stating a fact, that it could have a negative effect," he said.