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Legislature votes to prevent debate about Medicaid expansion

  • Author: Dermot Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: July 7, 2016
  • Published March 17, 2016

The Legislature finally took a vote on Medicaid expansion. They voted not to talk about it.

Having lost a ruling in Anchorage Superior Court, legislative leaders moved quickly to stifle discussion of whether the case should be appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court.

Recognizing that a legislative vote to not pay a Washington, D.C., law firm $150,000 for an appeal would be divisive, leaders of the House and Senate used parliamentary procedure to kill attempts by Democrats to discuss the topic, requiring members of the ruling coalitions to vote as instructed.

In the House, a staffer for House Speaker Mike Chenault concocted a convenient claim borrowed from the North Korean playbook — debate would be unconstitutional. In the Senate, Medicaid expansion opponent Sen. John Coghill said debate would be inappropriate.

"There's a timing issue," Coghill said after the Senate voted 16-4 to prohibit discussion of an amendment by Sen. Bill Wielechowski to save the $150,000. "I think the budget wasn't exactly the right place to deal with it."

Cogill is wrong about that, of course. The budget is all about the money.

There has never been a good time to vote because legislative leaders believe they would lose. Coghill acknowledged that a majority of senators "probably generally support the Medicaid expansion," though he said they don't like the unilateral action by the governor to do it without a vote by the Legislature.

The problem is that legislators don't want a vote on the merits of expansion, unilateral or otherwise.

After the Legislature declined to vote last year, Gov. Bill Walker expanded Medicaid Sept. 1 to more low-income Alaskans, funded mostly by the federal government under the Affordable Care Act, also known as "Obamacare." So far, 12,678 people have signed up for health insurance under the program and about 30,000 more could be eligible, the state estimates.

The Legislative Council, a committee controlled by the leaders of the Legislature, failed in efforts to get an injunction last summer to stop the expansion and the judge dismissed the case March 1, saying the governor followed existing law. The Legislature has the authority to rewrite the law, but is unwilling to do so.

The Legislature could have used its own lawyers to file the lawsuit, but it opted to hire two firms , including Bancroft PLLC lawyers who have typically charged $575 to more than $1,350 an hour. Bancroft received a flat fee of $250,000 for the first phase of the suit and it will collect $150,000 more if the case is appealed.

Coghill, chief defender of paying the D.C. law firm to continue, said "the Legislature has the potential of losing some of its authority because it was a unilateral action by the governor."

"It should be reserved for the Legislature and I think there's a good case for that," he said.

The legal office of the Legislature has said if lawmakers want to appeal, the entire Legislature should vote on the issue. Coghill said he thinks a vote is not needed.

The Legislative Council, which approved the money and the lawsuit last summer, "probably still retains that authority," according to Coghill.

Coghill declined numerous requests to comment for this column about the status of an appeal.

Sen. Gary Stevens, chairman of the Legislative Council, said he sticks by the legal opinion from the legislative attorney that a full vote of the Legislature is required before moving forward.

That sounds like the right way to set policy and good legal advice. Anything short of that would be an improper unilateral action by the Legislative Council.

Dermot Cole has been writing about Alaska politics for 40 years. He lives in Fairbanks. His oldest daughter is a deputy press secretary to Gov. Bill Walker. The views expressed here are Cole's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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