Alaska News

Alaska lawmakers meet on Medicaid challenge but don't drop lawsuit

The legislative committee that voted to sue Alaska Gov. Bill Walker over Medicaid expansion met Wednesday but took no action and offered no indication it would back away from its lawsuit -- even after two unfavorable rulings from state courts.

The meeting, held on short notice and out of public view in an "executive session" in the Legislature's Anchorage offices, was informational, with lawmakers hearing from their nonpartisan staff attorneys about legal questions surrounding Walker's decision to expand the Medicaid health care program without legislative approval.

The chairman of the House-Senate Legislative Council, Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said afterward that there had been no change in course following last month's 10-1 vote authorizing the lawsuit.

"The vote was to move ahead, and that's what we're doing," Stevens said in an interview after the meeting. "At this point, the Legislative Council has not talked about dropping the lawsuit -- that has not been a part of our discussion."

The Legislature's next step, however, is unclear. The case won't be resolved unless lawmakers make additional filings moving the case forward in state Superior Court.

The Senate's majority leader, Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, whose office has spearheaded the lawsuit, said Wednesday that he's still "firm on moving forward and defending the Legislature's right to be the appropriator."

But, he added: "I will have to talk to other legislators to see if they've rethought anything."

Stevens, who has endorsed Medicaid expansion, declined to offer his own opinion of the lawsuit when asked.

"I'm the chairman of a bipartisan coalition here," he responded, referring to his leadership of a defunct Republican-Democrat majority caucus in the Senate a few years ago.

Walker's administration began expanded Medicaid enrollment Tuesday, following two unsuccessful court challenges by the Legislature.

The governor, a Republican-turned independent, promised during his campaign last year that he would expand Medicaid under President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act to newly cover as many as 40,000 low-income adults who previously didn't qualify.

In July, Walker said he'd go ahead with the move unilaterally after the Republican-controlled Legislature blocked his attempts to expand Medicaid through the state's budget process and through standalone legislation the governor offered earlier this year.

The Legislative Council authorized its lawsuit last month, saying Walker's move was illegal and unconstitutional. But Superior Court Judge Frank Pfiffner rejected those arguments in a ruling Friday, saying the Legislature, in fact, had put unconstitutional language in its budget to try to stop Walker from expanding Medicaid.

Pfiffner's ruling dismissed a request by the Legislature to delay Medicaid expansion until lawmakers' underlying suit was resolved, saying that the challenge didn't appear likely to succeed.

The Supreme Court then issued its own ruling Monday following an appeal by the Legislature, rejecting the appeal and saying it hadn't proven Pfiffner had made a mistake in his analysis.

Minority Democratic lawmakers, who have supported Medicaid expansion, on Wednesday questioned why the Republican-led Legislative Council hadn't set the lawsuit aside.

"I just can't believe that," Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, said in a phone interview.

Rep. Sam Kito III, D-Juneau, the lone Democratic minority caucus member of the Legislative Council, said he'd only been informed about Wednesday's meeting late Tuesday morning, precluding him from attending in-person in Anchorage. He pointed out in a phone interview afterward that the Legislature's case had already been undercut by the two court rulings.

In a draft news release dated Wednesday obtained by Alaska Dispatch News, Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, the Senate minority leader, was quoted saying that Republican legislators should "give up this wasteful and frivolous suit."

"I can't imagine the news from their lawyers was good during Wednesday's executive session," Gardner said in the statement.

The Legislative Council in its 10-1 vote last month authorized paying two law firms as much as $450,000 to work on the suit, including up to $400,000 for Virginia-based Bancroft PLLC. Bancroft has worked on behalf of a number of conservative causes, and represented more than two dozen states in their U.S. Supreme Court challenge to Obama's health law.

The firm's contract hasn't been formally signed, but its compensation for its work in Alaska will be on a flat-fee basis, according to an email sent Tuesday to Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, by the director of the Legislature's nonpartisan support staff, Pam Varni.

Bancroft will be paid $100,000 "upon execution" of its contract and $150,000 "when services in the Superior Court are completely rendered," Varni said.

If the Legislature decides to appeal to the Supreme Court, Bancroft will earn another $75,000 for its first legal brief, and $75,000 for "final resolution."

Another law firm, Holmes Weddle & Barcott, will charge by the hour up to a maximum of $50,000, according to the Varni email.

Nathaniel Herz

Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He’s been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at ADN and Alaska Public Media. He’s reported around the state and loves cross-country skiing.

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