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Alaska


Funding for boards at issue in suit
OVERSIGHT: State sued over key provision of 1994 lands trust settlement.


By LISA DEMER
Anchorage Daily News

(Published: January 13, 2004)

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Just as lawmakers opened their annual session in Juneau on Monday, the state was sued to ensure oversight of services for people with mental illness and other conditions.

The Law Project for Psychiatric Rights, an Anchorage-based private organization, sued in Anchorage Superior Court concerning a key provision of the 1994 Mental Health Lands Trust settlement.

The settlement ended a divisive and complicated lawsuit that stretched over a dozen years and clouded title to 1 million acres in Alaska. That lawsuit contended the state had botched the original mental health trust set up in territorial days to pay for mental health programs.

The settlement put 930,000 acres and $200 million into a new trust and created the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority to manage it for the benefit of people with mental illness, developmental disabilities, chronic alcoholism and Alzheimer's disease.

Under the settlement terms, four advisory boards were mandated to watch out for the interests of those individuals and to help plan and evaluate services for them. They are the Alaska Mental Health Board, the Advisory Board on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, the Governor's Council on Disabilities and Special Education, and the Alaska Commission on Aging.

The new lawsuit seeks a court ruling that adequate funding for the boards is an essential element of the original settlement.

If it is, and if lawmakers then fail to provide adequate funding, that would be a breach of the settlement and would reopen the whole thorny issue, said Jim Gottstein, the attorney who filed the new suit. He is the chief operating officer of the Law Project for Psychiatric Rights and a member of the Alaska Mental Health Board.

The ownership of original trust lands would be in dispute, Gottstein contends.

"There's no question that four boards were a material term of the settlement," Gottstein said. The issue is whether "adequate funding and adequate opportunity" for the boards to do their jobs should be considered the same way, he said.

Gov. Frank Murkowski has proposed cuts of 2 percent to 20 percent to each of the four boards for the budget year that starts July 1.

The administration wants the boards to save money by combining staffing where they can, said Janet Clarke, administrative director for the state Department of Health and Social Services. For instance, a research staff member could work for two boards, as could an administrative assistant, she said.

"There absolutely is support to keep the boards running," she said.

Ultimately, two boards may combine, which the administration also would support, she said. That would likely require court approval as a change to the 1994 settlement.

The budgets pay for staff and travel for the boards. For the mental health board, which would take the biggest cut, the governor is proposing $353,000. That's down $91,000 from the current budget, which is down about $124,000 from the year before. The board has had to scale back board meetings from four to three a year.

"Obviously it's a fairly substantial cut, so we would have to make substantial changes," said Richard Rainery, mental health board executive director.

How to balance the state budget promises to be, once again, the big issue for Alaska lawmakers. The state has projected a $600 million shortfall between revenue and spending for the 12 months starting July 1.

Gottstein said he timed the lawsuit for the Legislature's first day.

"There was a certain symbolism that I liked," Gottstein said.

Daily News reporter Lisa Demer can be reached at ldemer@adn.com and 257-4390.




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