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Republican legislative leaders seek to deny Medicaid expansion vote

  • Author: Pat Forgey
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published April 14, 2015

JUNEAU -- Here's the tactic that Republican legislative leaders hope will block Medicaid expansion in Alaska: They intend to require majority support inside their caucuses for extending Medicaid before they'll allow a floor vote. That move would effectively turn the entire Legislature into their partisan organizations and prevent their own members from joining Democrats to pass expansion.

"We don't want to put anything on the floor that the majority caucus doesn't support," said Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, who as president leads the 15-member majority caucus in the Senate made up of 14 Republicans and Democrat Lyman Hoffman of Bethel.

In the House of Representatives, Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, said a similar policy is in effect.

"The majority should have a say on whether it goes to the floor or not," Chenault said of expansion.

Chenault's caucus has 26 members, including four Democrats.

Both caucuses meet behind closed doors.

Both Meyer and Chenault have said recently that there is currently not support in their respective caucuses for expansion despite two recently released state polls, one paid for by the Republican House leadership, showing overwhelming support among Alaskans for it. Expansion would bring health care coverage to thousands of uninsured Alaskans, with the federal government picking up most of the costs.

Gov. Bill Walker would be "very disappointed" if legislative leaders refused to allow a vote on the high-profile proposal, said spokesperson Grace Jang.

Legislative leaders have already rebuffed attempts by Walker to include Medicaid expansion in his budget. They urged him to instead submit stand-alone expansion bills to be considered.

Walker has maintained that he has authority on his own to accept Medicaid expansion, but after negotiations with Republican leaders agreed to submit the bills they requested.

Chenault said Walker was never actually promised a vote on the bill in the House.

"The governor asked me if he introduced a bill, how many committees of referral would I give it?" Chenault said.

"He hoped that I would give it two, and that's exactly what we gave it," Chenault said.

Multiple committee referrals can be used to slow or block bills presiding officers dislike, while fewer can speed passage.

Jang confirmed that conversation, and said the only promise Walker received was about the numbers of committees of referral.

Chenault said he's lived up to his pledge.

"There was nothing on a vote or moving it to the floor," he said about the agreement.

Walker got a similar pledge in the Senate, and got two committees of referral there as well.

In addition, all bills automatically get referrals to the Rules Committee, which schedules floor votes.

Sen. Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, chairs the Senate Rules Committee and said he will not let Walker's Medicaid expansion bill go to the floor if it doesn't have support from a majority of his Republican-led caucus -- even if it would likely pass.

"Sen. Huggins works for the majority," Huggins said. "It's not what Sen. Huggins does, it's how we follow a long tradition we've had in the Senate, as long as I've been in the Senate."

That would mean Walker's bill would need support from at least seven of the 14 Republicans for Medicaid expansion to be considered. If all six Senate Democrats supported expansion, only five Republicans would be needed for the bill to pass.

House Minority Leader Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, said he, too, would be disappointed if there was no vote.

"It better come to a vote," he said. "I think it's wrong when one or two members think they can keep something off the floor when a majority of the members would like to vote on it."

A widely circulated email by Rep. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, suggested that Medicaid expansion could pass in a floor vote. Tuck agreed, but said that members of his minority Independent Democratic Caucus are all supporters, and it would likely take their support to win passage.

"I know they've got some hard-line members over there who don't want to see anything happen with Medicaid expansion," he said.

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