Alaska News

House, Senate leaders ignore plea to use free time to study Medicaid

JUNEAU -- As a small group of legislative leaders works on a final budget compromise here, Democrats and Gov. Bill Walker are urging lawmakers to use their spare time for hearings on expansion of the public Medicaid health care program and work on other pending legislation.

Both Walker and the Democratic minorities in the Legislature want Medicaid expanded to make about 40,000 low-income Alaskans newly eligible.

That's one of House Democrats' requests in budget talks with the Republican majorities in both the House and Senate. But lawmakers from both those majorities have opposed expanding the program, saying that their concerns about Medicaid's costs and problems with the program haven't been addressed and that Walker's plan needs more work.

The budget deadlock has kept legislators in Juneau three days beyond the scheduled adjournment of their 90-day session last Sunday. Some lawmakers have said they have time on their hands as caucus leaders negotiate.

Walker sent House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, and Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, a letter Wednesday saying they should "use this time wisely." Walker has previously suggested that he could order lawmakers to stay in Juneau to work on Medicaid expansion if it's not addressed before the Legislature finishes its budget discussions and adjourns.

His letter Wednesday referenced three other pending pieces of legislation on his agenda. They include Erin's Law, which would require schools to teach students about sexual abuse and prevention. A bill modeled on Erin's Law, House Bill 44, passed the House last week but hasn't been scheduled for a hearing in the Senate.

Another bill on Walker's list, House Bill 105, is aimed at providing more and cheaper natural gas to Fairbanks from Cook Inlet. The Senate has postponed consideration of that measure several times.


The last bill on Walker's list, House Bill 106, would update Alaska's statutes so the state doesn't lose access to federal child support and welfare money.

"I hope you will consider continuing to hold hearings and deliberations on each of the above items while legislators are gathered, given the abundance of available time," Walker's letter concluded.

Democratic legislators took a similar position Wednesday, saying they had time to work.

"Unless you're on the conference committee, there's not a whole lot to do," said Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, referring to a key, six-member House-Senate budget committee. "Most people aren't, so the rest of us are just waiting for them. I think there should be hearings -- we should be working on legislation while we're here."

Floor sessions in both the House and Senate scheduled for Wednesday morning were delayed, as was a meeting of the conference committee. The only other committee with a meeting scheduled Wednesday was the Senate Finance Committee, where the Legislature's top financial analyst was due to give a presentation on the state's fiscal crisis.

There were no committee meetings Tuesday; meanwhile, the Senate held a brief floor session for a reconsideration vote on a bill to create a children's day in the month of June, while the House didn't meet.

In an interview Wednesday, Chenault said that House members were focused on budget negotiations. Hearings on Medicaid, he added, likely couldn't be organized on time.

"We're not expecting to be here much longer. About the time we spin something up, we'd be done," he said. "If the governor wants to call us back, he can do that -- and I'm certain that he will. Then we can address it."

Nathaniel Herz

Anchorage-based independent journalist Nathaniel Herz has been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Public Media. Read his newsletter, Northern Journal, at