U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller acknowledged Thursday that in the past his family received assistance from federal Medicaid and Denali KidCare, the state low-income health care program. His opponents in the race responded that he's a hypocrite for taking assistance while now saying federal entitlement programs are unconstitutional.
Miller's campaign didn't provide an answer for the past week-and-a-half when asked what low-income assistance he has received. But Miller addressed the question Thursday when asked by reporters after a debate in Anchorage, saying people are entitled to know about his past benefits but "it's a bit of a distraction from where we're at today."
"I have the same sort of struggles in my past that other people have had. There is a proper role for government. The question is, who controls the power, is it at the federal level or the state level? It's our perspective that the state is the best arbiter, the state's the best point at which we make those decisions. Because it gets us closer to the people," the Republican nominee said.
Miller said he has not been on government assistance "for years." Miller did not provide a timeline but his campaign spokesman said he thinks Miller stopped receiving benefits in 2002. That's the year he accepted a position as a part-time federal magistrate in Fairbanks, began his own law practice there and started work as an assistant borough attorney. He'd been state magistrate in Tok since 1998.
Miller, who has eight children, said his family "absolutely" received Denali KidCare, a state-run program that includes federal Medicaid money.
Miller criticized Sen. Lisa Murkowski in June during the campaign for the Republican primary for supporting Denali KidCare, given that money from it pays for abortions.
"As you are aware, just last week the Anchorage Daily News reported that the Denali KidCare Program funded 662 abortions last year. Senator Murkowski has been a champion of this program, voting against the majority of her Republican colleagues for CHIPRA (HR 2) in January of 2009," Miller wrote in a fundraising letter.
Miller said Thursday that his criticism was about expanding the program -- not of the program itself.
"We've also got a federal government today which is in completely different conditions than it used to be. At the time, I don't know what the deficit was but it certainly was less than half, I believe, than what it is today," he said.
Miller, asked what other federal or state low-income assistance he received, noted that he received a low-income state hunting and fishing license in 1995.
"That was contingent on two things. That you have low income or you have a program. I think at the time, that was before Denali KidCare, at the time we had three children and one on the way, and I believe it was probably some form of Medicaid program we were on at the time," Miller said.
Medicaid, a program created by the federal government to pay for health-care for low-income Americans, is funded half from federal dollars and half from state.
Murkowski, who is running a write-in campaign after losing to Miller in the primary, said there is nothing wrong with using government "safety nets."
"What I find so hypocritical about Miller is he has stated repeatedly his opposition to these programs, stating that they are unconstitutional. So if you believe they are unconstitutional then why would you avail yourself of these safety nets? ... You either walk the talk or you don't," Murkowski said.
Miller said what he's advocating is complete state control of the programs. "That doesn't mean we cut off the programs. That is ultimately a state decision. And I think there is a use; in fact the most effective use is probably those programs that help transition the populations from more of a situation of dependency" to one where they can be economically independently," Miller said.
Democratic candidate Scott McAdams, the Sitka mayor, contended that Miller wants to deny others the benefits he previously received, saying about two-thirds of Denali KidCare funding is federal. "If he doesn't want the federal government playing a role in this program, he should send the money his family received back. To me, his view of sole state control will only increase the burden on Alaska's budget and will send Alaskans' tax dollars to the Lower 48," McAdams said.
Miller said during Thursday's Senate candidate debate that he is not proposing to turn off the spigot of federal dollars to Alaska but wants the state to be able to entirely control how those dollars are spent. He said the nation is near bankruptcy, though, and the flow of federal dollars can't stay at current levels.
Miller has asserted that many programs, including unemployment benefits, are unconstitutional on a federal level, saying they should be entirely state-controlled.
Miller had previously acknowledged that his wife received unemployment benefits after working for about seven months as his clerk when he was a part-time federal magistrate in Fairbanks. He expounded on that Thursday, saying his wife paid into the system and was entitled to the benefit.
Miller said he thinks his wife made "less than $10,000" as his clerk. Miller said previous magistrate judges in Fairbanks also had family working for them and he cleared it with court administrators before hiring her.
"There was a change in direction, a change in decision at the federal level that made a determination it wasn't appropriate to continue that," Miller said.
A reporter asked Miller if he was directed to fire her. "I've answered the question," Miller said.
Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call him at 257-4344.