Calling Alaska ‘under attack’ by Biden, Alaska House votes millions for lawsuit

JUNEAU — During last week’s budget debates in the Alaska House of Representatives, Republican lawmakers stood up and said the state of Alaska was under attack by President Joe Biden’s administration. No Democratic lawmakers have disputed this claim.

Now, as the state of Alaska’s proposed operating budget advances through the Senate, it contains $2 million for a special account to fund lawsuits against the federal government. Known as the “state defense fund,” the account was funded with $4 million last year as state lawmakers responded to a request from Governor Mike Dunleavy.

The governor and lawmakers — including some Democrats and independents — have opposed the Biden administration’s efforts to limit oil and gas development on federal lands, and the state defense fund is seen as a major tool to oppose the federal government.

“It’s sort of like the Alaska State Department of Defense,” said Rep. Mike Prax, R-North Pole. “The Biden administration has just been extremely hostile to the state of Alaska. We have no idea what they will do next.

“It strikes me as an attack on Alaskans by the federal government,” he said.

So far, the state has used its defense fund to pay for seven trials on a variety of topics, including support for federal land transfers to the state, opposition to air pollution limits, and opposition to a nationwide moratorium on oil and gas leasing on federal lands.

Several lawmakers said they believe oil and gas issues are the most important because oil production generates money for the state.

“More oil and gas production will solve so many problems and eliminate so many problems,” said Rep. Tom McKay, R-Anchorage.

The fund could be used for six other ongoing cases be funded by other accounts. These include state support for Ambler Road, state support for oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, state support for Pebble Mine, and state support for the oil and gas drilling in national petroleum reserve.

Jason Brune is commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and chairman of the state advocacy group for the Dunleavy administration.

“We talk about how we’re under constant attack,” he told the House Finance Committee last month.

Assistant Attorney General Cori Mills said the Justice Department has seen an increase of about 30% in the number of federal government-related cases referred by state agencies.

Twelve other lawsuits that could use the fund are not yet ready to be filed, said Assistant Attorney General Grace Lee, a spokeswoman for the department. The Ministry has not publicly identified these cases.

“I think we see it in all areas,” Brune said. “The feds have Alaska absolutely in their sights.”

Money from the fund engages private law firms that work on behalf of the state. Contracts worth $1.3 million have already been signed, Lee said, and another contract worth $500,000 is in the works. About $600,000 had actually been spent by the end of February, she said.

“The costs of these cases over two to four years will be between $3 million and $6 million. There are at least 11 cases anticipated – these total costs are estimated to be over $8 million,” she said.

Dunleavy requested an additional $4 million in funding for the program when he submitted his budget to the Alaska Legislature. This money was stripped by a sub-committee, which questioned why it was needed when much of last year’s money remains available.

“This is basically a slush fund for the Law Department,” said Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage and subcommittee member.

Other lawmakers — including some Republicans — have said the Justice Department should approach the Legislature when it needs funding and not ask for money up front.

Despite these concerns, the House finance committee approved an additional $2 million, and that amount was advanced by the entire House.

The district of Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage. voted for Biden at a higher rate than any other district in Anchorage.

After the vote, Fields said it was “ludicrous” to say Alaska is under attack by the Biden administration, citing the amount of economic aid and infrastructure money Alaska is receiving.

“Having said that,” he said, “I think you can recognize the reality of our relationship with the federal government, including the fact that the federal government is saving our bacon during this crisis, but also supporting the earmarking funds for development litigation.”

Some lawmakers have also privately noted that this is an election year and that Biden is relatively unpopular in Alaska.

The budget is now in the hands of the Senate Finance Committee, and its first draft proposal includes no additional money for the state defense fund.

Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, represents the oil-rich North Slope and chairs the Senate Justice Department budget subcommittee.

He said the state’s failure to spend all of its available money and the state’s poor track record in federal prosecutions contributed to the decision to leave extra money on the table.

Olson said there are clear differences between the state’s approach and the federal government’s approach, but he prefers different tactics. On Thursday, he was flying to Utqiagvik, where he and other lawmakers were to meet Home Secretary Deb Haaland. He said they intended to discuss oil and gas development issues.

“We are in a battle, but we have to choose our battles wisely,” he said.

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