Legislators reluctant to override governor's KidCare funds veto

Sean Cockerham | Tribune Media Services

Alaska Senate President Gary Stevens is polling the Senate to see if its members support going into special session and overriding Gov. Sean Parnell's veto of money to expand Denali KidCare. But Stevens said he doesn't think there's enough support for a veto override and personally opposes having a special session.

Stevens is taking the poll at the request of Anchorage Democratic Sen. Hollis French. French is a part of the bipartisan majority in the Senate and he's also running against the Republican Parnell for governor in this year's election. French and three other Democratic senators, Bettye Davis, Johnny Ellis and Bill Wielechowski, on Tuesday called on Parnell to change his mind about Denali KidCare and bring the Legislature into special session to override the veto.

Parnell spokeswoman Sharon Leighow responded that is not going to happen.

The Legislature could always call itself into special session. But it takes a three-quarters vote of the House and Senate meeting in joint session to override a budget veto. That means 45 of the 60 legislators would need to support an override. "I think it's unlikely there are three-quarters," Stevens said.

Parnell last week vetoed nearly $3 million to expand Denali KidCare, which covers health care costs for low income children and pregnant women. It would have brought an estimated 1,300 more children and 218 more pregnant women into the program, according to the state.

Parnell said he vetoed the expansion because some Denali KidCare money funds abortions.

The state has no choice about funding "medically necessary" abortions, though, because of a 2001 Alaska Supreme Court ruling. Physicians decide when an abortion is medically necessary.

Stevens said he voted for the Denali KidCare expansion but doesn't support a special session or a veto override. Stevens said Thursday that "I think the governor has made a very good point" and he wants to look at the details.

Parnell said he only recently discovered that some of the money was going to abortions. Stevens said he also hadn't known that Denali KidCare money went to abortions.

Senate Majority Leader Ellis said Tuesday that the veto doesn't do anything to outlaw abortions in Alaska and only hurts low income women and kids. The Anchorage Democrat said Parnell "needs to stop playing politics with children's health."

House Speaker Mike Chenault said no one has asked him to poll members of the Alaska House of Representatives about an override. Chenault, a Nikiski Republican, said he wouldn't support overriding the veto anyway. Chenault said he voted for the Denali KidCare expansion but is worried about the annual cost of paying to make a wider range of people eligible for the program.


French said he thinks Parnell isn't telling the truth about only recently finding out that the 9-year-old court ruling means that Denali KidCare money funds abortions. "He supported the (Denali KidCare) bill all the way through the process until the political season came upon us. And I believe that what we're seeing is politics playing out in a very ugly way in Alaska," he said.

The governor's opponents point out that Parnell is running in the primary for the Republican nomination for governor and that appealing to conservative voters has benefits.

Parnell was aware of issues surrounding the state being required to fund abortions but did not know funds from Denali KidCare in particular were going for that purpose, according to Leighow, his spokeswoman. "Until recently, the governor was unaware that (Denali KidCare) paid for abortion related services," she said.

French said there's evidence otherwise. Parnell, when he was in the state Senate in 1998, was part of a discussion of the constitutionality of a bill that sought to stop the state from funding abortions under a different medical program. French said Parnell then brought up abortions later that same year during discussion of the bill that became Denali KidCare, a program which Parnell voted for.

Records show Parnell asked health commissioner Karen Perdue if the bill would expand eligibility for public funding of abortions. Perdue answered that the purpose was prenatal care. She went on to say "federal Medicaid laws prohibited the kind of funding for abortions that could occur to those allowed in the Hyde Amendment. Therefore, under Medicaid itself, there were very limited situations where abortions could be preformed. These were mainly life-threatening situations."

Parnell asked Perdue if any other programs in state government granted public funding for abortions. She noted the Legislature was doing a lot to try to prohibit state funding for abortions and nothing in the bill would change that.

The records show that 1998 meeting also included discussion of a letter of intent "which stated that funding for this program was not intended to be spent on any abortion related services."

Three years later the Alaska Supreme Court ruling left the state with no choice about funding abortions. The ruling was over the Legislature's effort to prevent the state from funding "medically necessary" abortions for Medicaid recipients.

The ruling said: "if the state undertakes to fund medically necessary services for poor Alaskans, it may not exclude from that program women who medically require abortions."

French said the 2001 Supreme Court ruling was front-page news and Parnell had to know. "The governor I believe has to describe in greater detail how he could possibly be unaware medically necessary abortions are funded by Medicaid, by Denali KidCare, by any state funded medical care," French said.

Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call him at 257-4344.

PDF: Full list of vetoes