Voices of Alaska: Taking a stand

  • By House Speaker Mike Chenault and Senate President Kevin Meyer
  • Wednesday, August 19, 2015 8:40pm
  • Opinion

Today, the Alaska Legislative Council, acting on behalf of the legislative branch, voted to file an injunction against the governor for his attempt to expand Medicaid without authorization.

The Alaska Constitution is crystal clear: no public funds may be spent outside of the legislative appropriations process. The governor has begun the task of expanding Medicaid by seeking to hire 23 new staff. Administrative costs — just keeping track of the new paperwork burden — will cost millions of state dollars.

Having no legal source of cash for this action, the governor has decided to raid the Alaska Mental Health Trust, a fund dedicated to providing care, including substance abuse treatment, to vulnerable Alaskans.

We believe his action is unconstitutional and it’s simply wrong. Robbing Peter to pay Paul does not enrich the Alaska family, even if it’s politically expedient.

We have no desire to sue the Executive Branch and would rather spend our time listening to Alaskans than arguing in court. But the Governor has left us no choice. When branches of government disagree, we are forced to rely on our third branch: the court.

If we do not contest Governor Walker’s shuffle-and-spend maneuver, what will stop any future governor from “finding” money elsewhere in the budget and spending it to leapfrog the legislative process?

With only a month remaining during the 2015 legislative session, the governor filed a bill authorizing Medicaid Expansion. It received fair, public hearings.

The nature of the committee process is to shine bright lights into dark corners, to read all the fine print. When the lights came on, and legislators saw the cobwebs clogging our current Medicaid system, we paused. Is it wise to expand Medicaid at this time? Hard questions were asked and weaknesses probed. With the cameras rolling, it became apparent that the administration’s witnesses weren’t fully prepared.

In response to legislative scrutiny, the Department of Health recently hired a team of outside experts to assist them in auditing our existing Medicaid system and recommending reforms. Those folks started working just last month.

The governor was understandably frustrated. So were we. He had made promises. We wanted facts to backup his expansion direction. They were in short supply.

With his expansion bill seemingly stalled, Governor Walker made a discovery: important decisions like this should be made by a single branch of government. His branch.

We disagree. We believe the founders crafted three branches of government for a reason, still valid today. Every governor born, bred, elected or deceased has, at times, been frustrated by not getting to make every decision. That is why our Constitution created a system of checks and balances, to prevent one person from having too much power.

The governor has refused to be checked by tough questions — questions that will impact Alaska’s fiscal future. His administration refuses to be counter-balanced by a deliberative committee process that would focus on smart reforms, learn from other states’ enrollment realities and answer the real clincher: who will pay the bill for one of Alaska’s largest cost-drivers when the federal funding share of the program drops?

Seeking an injunction to stop the governor’s unconstitutional action is the only way we can get a judicial review before the floodgates open on September 1. We have to act now in order to ensure the balance of power in our constitutional system is honored.

Today, Alaskans get to see a rare specimen: the creature commentators tell us has been extinct for generations. Not just one, but an entire group of elected officials standing up for what they believe is right, knowing full well it will not be popular.

Medicaid today covers Alaska’s most vulnerable: families, pregnant mothers, disabled Alaskans and children. Many legislators support extending Medicaid if it’s the outcome of a smart, deliberative process. Any expansion decision must be driven by answers instead of hounded by questions. Simple prudence demands sideboards and reforms to our current system in order to protect the vulnerable Alaskans Medicaid currently serves.

Today we stand not against Alaskans, not against health care, not against Obama and not against Medicaid.

Today we stand for the checks and balances embodied in our Constitution. Today we stand against a governor we believe is appropriating millions outside the limits of our constitutional process. Today we stand to defend the power of the purse.

Rep. Mike Chenault is Speaker of the Alaska House of Representatives. Sen. Kevin Meyer is President of the Alaska Senate.

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