Legislature to consider marriage and Medicaid in a renewal of last year's battles

JUNEAU — Controversial issues involving same-sex marriage and Medicaid expansion highlight bills introduced in the first round of prefiled legislation introduced in the 2016 Alaska Legislature, but battles over those issues may not have the same intensity as in 2015.

Bills introduced in both the House and Senate would bar the state or municipalities from penalizing those authorized to perform marriages from refusing to do so, or refusing to provide goods, services or accommodations for the "solemnization, formation or celebration of a marriage."

The bill doesn't specifically mention same-sex marriages, but that issue has been lately controversial, with the Legislature declining to pass anti-discrimination legislation, but local governments doing so on their own.

Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, a supporter of Anchorage's anti-discrimination ordinance, said he was initially concerned about the intent of the bills. But a closer analysis reveals them to be "fairly benign," though still not a good idea, he said.

"This probably reflects existing law, but it is unfortunate that it emphasizes an intolerant and unwelcoming viewpoint," he said.

The bills' sponsors are Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, and Rep. Dave Talerico, R-Healy, in the Senate and House respectively, but both were traveling or otherwise unavailable for comment Friday.

Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, was most active in early bill introduction, sponsoring four pieces of prefiled legislation released Friday. One bill resumes last year's battles over Medicaid expansion, and attempts to conditionally force its repeal.

"This legislation automatically terminates, and affirmatively prohibits, Medicaid expansion upon the occurrence of any one of four conditions," Hawker said in a sponsor statement provided by his office.

Those conditions include if federal Medicaid reimbursement is reduced from what is now promised under the Affordable Care Act, or if enrollment exceeds projections by more than 10 percent, or savings to the general fund are not at least 90 percent of what was projected, or if the troubled Medicaid computer system does not win federal certification.

If any one of those conditions happens at any time in the next five years, Medicaid expansion would automatically end.

Legislative opponents of Medicaid expansion last year said they wanted to reform the health-care program for low-income Alaskans and reduce its cost, but passed no legislation to do so.

Gov. Bill Walker said Friday he hopes such legislation will be heard this year.

"I look forward to working with lawmakers this session on legislation pertaining to Medicaid reform and redesign," he said in a statement provided by spokesperson Katie Marquette.

In the last legislative session, leaders of both the House and Senate opposed expansion, but they were not able to pass legislation prohibiting it. Expansion supporters, both Democrats and some members of the Republican-led majority caucuses in each house, said they believed expansion would have won support in a stand-alone vote, but that was not allowed.

Instead, with no explicit approval or prohibition, Walker used a provision in state law to accept the federal money for Medicaid expansion on his own.

Another Hawker bill prefiled Friday would give the Legislature new powers to prohibit the governor from accepting Medicaid funds without legislative approval.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, would stop marriages from being performed in state prisons.

The Department of Corrections said it first learned of the bill as it was prefiled Friday, and didn't know its intent. Lynn was unavailable for comment Friday.

Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, questioned why such a bill would be introduced.

"There may be a good reason, but off the top of my head I can't think of one," she said.

She said she was concerned that such a bill would be harmful to prisoner rehabilitation and re-entry efforts.

"If you believe people can choose their life partners, just because you have been convicted of a crime and are incarcerated doesn't mean you should lose those rights" unless there is a good reason, she said.

Prison weddings happen on occasion, said Department of Corrections spokesperson Sherrie Daigle.

Since June, six have been requested, she said. Four were approved by Corrections administrators.

Marriage may play a role in a prisoner's rehabilitation, she said, and would generally be approved unless there was a reason not to.

"Prisoners are allowed to get married as long as it doesn't negatively impact their rehabilitation, public safety or institutional security," she said.

For example, two co-defendants who wanted to use the "spousal privilege" to avoid testifying against each other in court would not be allowed to marry, she said.

Lynn's bill also prohibits conjugal visits and bars two spouses from being housed in the same prison. Both are already barred under prison policy, Daigle said.

After last year's lengthy legislative session, in which the 90-day statutory session was repeatedly extended, Rep. Sam Kito, D-Juneau, has introduced legislation to go back to the Alaska Constitution's 120-day session.

"We can be more efficient if we are concentrated here for 120 days to get work done," he said.

"It's more effective to give us adequate time during regular session to consider statute changes or budget changes, rather than having multiple extended sessions," he said.

Kito's proposal would eliminate the 90-day session limit approved by a voter initiative sponsored by three legislators in 2006.

The second regular session of the 29th Legislature convenes in Juneau on Jan. 19.