House attempts to carry Alaska Medicaid expansion lawsuit to Supreme Court

Published: May. 6, 2016 at 1:48 PM AKDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

The Alaska House of Representatives is attempting to unilaterally advance a lawsuit that challenges Gov. Bill Walker's unilateral expansion of Medicaid access.

Walker acted last July to accept millions of federal dollars to provide thousands of low-income Alaskans with health insurance, but a legal challenge quickly followed. The key question is whether or not the governor can legally make such a move without legislative approval quickly followed.

The decision by House GOP leaders to file an appeal to the Supreme Court on Thursday comes after a state Superior Court judge in March sided with the governor and against lawmakers – and after Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, told The Associated Press earlier this week that there is not enough support in the Senate to move forward with an appeal.

In an interview Friday, Coghill said support for continuing the legal challenge diminished in his chamber when a legal opinion from the Legislature’s nonpartisan attorney cautioned against moving forward.

“I think we should challenge the governor's authority. I think to concede at this point is wrong. I just don't have the support,” Coghill said. “Truthfully, getting a budget, getting some of the reform issues became a bigger problem. The diminishing returns of winning an issue between the Legislature and the governor just started taking second place to some people.”

It is not immediately clear if the House has legal standing to take over the case from the committee Legislative Council, which has not approved an appeal.

The 14-member council made up of leaders from each chamber is allowed to make decisions about litigation involving the Legislature outside of the regular lawmaking session, but when session is active, House and Senate floor votes are required, according to attorney Doug Gardner.

He wrote in a March 3 memo to Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, that “once the Legislature returns for the legislative session, the interim authority of the council ends and the Legislature as a bicameral body makes litigation decisions, such as the decision to file an appeal in the Alaska Supreme Court, which is separate and distinct from the litigation in Superior Court previously authorized.”

Even though a previous $450,000 allocation may cover the costs of an appeal, and even with the voter-approved 90-day session limit is long gone, Gardner sees affirmative floor votes as the only path to the Supreme Court. The regular session will still officially be alive for at least a while longer: the Constitution allows 121 days annually, as well as a 10-day extension, before special sessions need to be called for lawmaking to continue.

House GOP leaders who have advocated the lawsuit, including Rep. Craig Johnson of Anchorage and Speaker Mike Chenault of Nikiski, were not available for comment on Friday.

Spokesperson for the House Majority, Jeremiah Campbell, offered this statement: “An appeal has been legally filed and the lawsuit is proceeding.”

Beyond the question of whether or not the House has standing, Democrats, who oppose the lawsuit and supported expanding access to the federal health subsidy, on Friday expressed frustration at the continued effort at a time when many big policy proposals are still up in the air. Capital and operating budgets have not been passed, proposals to reform the state’s costly oil and gas tax credit system have faltered, and plans to use Permanent Fund earnings to pay for government are off in the background.

"This is a waste of taxpayer money," Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, said of the appeal. "We've got a $4 billion deficit. We have much more important things to be working on than this frivolous lawsuit that has not been approved by the full body."

Walker was not available for an interview but shared a similar sentiment in a written statement: "Given the magnitude of the issues our state is currently facing, we find this very disappointing," he wrote.

"This is a waste of taxpayer money," said Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage. "We've got a $4 billion deficit. We have much more important things to be working on than this frivolous lawsuit that has not been approved by the full body."

The governor was not available for an interview but offered this written statement: "Given the magnitude of the issues our state is currently facing, we find this very disappointing," he wrote.