House Democrats plan to use their increase in numbers as leverage when pushing for Medicaid expansion.
With the last election, the House Minority caucus grew from ten to 13, making support from at least some of their members necessary for any action that requires a three-fourths vote. The most significant of these actions is a vote to allow the Legislature to cover a shortfall through the Constitutional Budget Reserve, a hard-to-tap rainy day account that is worth $11 billion.
At a press availability on Tuesday, House Minority Leader Chris Tuck said that requirement could help his caucus push for Medicaid expansion. While the federal government would pay the added costs of Medicaid expansion through 2016, the Legislature must accept the money through a line in its budget.
“We do know that that’s going to be a bargaining strength for our side,” said Tuck. “We’re going to use that vote very cautiously. We want to make sure that we’re doing the best for Alaska, making those lasting opportunities not just in health care, but in education.”
Expanding Medicaid to include Alaskans with incomes at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty level has been a priority for Democrats in the Legislature and for unaffiliated governor Bill Walker. According to a report commissioned by the state in 2013, Medicaid expansion could bring more than $2 billion in federal funding to the state over the next six years. But opponents of expansion — including former Gov. Sean Parnell and some Republican lawmakers — note that same report concludes the state would be obligated to pay over $200 million over that same time period.
With a projected deficit of over $3 billion, the Legislature’s financial analysts have determined that it will be necessary to access the Constitutional Budget Reserves. The withdrawal could be structured in such a way that education funding is tied to a vote, making opposition to use of the reserves more difficult.