Gov. Sean Parnell visited Washington, D.C., last week for a meeting of the National Governors Association, and he came back believing that “Washington is broken,” he said at a press conference Thursday morning.
But Parnell, who has been tipped as a potential Republican candidate to take on Democratic Sen. Mark Begich next year, avoided talk of whether he wants to go to Congress to work on national issues.
Instead he focused on Alaska and its relationship with the federal government — namely an opt-in Medicaid expansion, which he said Alaska should not pursue this year.
Parnell referred to the fast-approaching set of fiscal hurdles the United States faces.
Without a deal between the divided houses of Congress and the White House to avert it, the deep, broad spending cuts collectively referred to as “sequestration” will take effect at the end of the day on Friday.
If a budget or continuing resolution is not signed into law to keep the federal government funded by late March, a government shutdown may follow.
The U.S. is also expected to reach its borrowing limit, which was temporarily suspended in January, sometime this summer, setting the stage for yet another showdown between the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and President Barack Obama over raising the so-called “debt ceiling.”
“We will have gone from January’s ‘fiscal cliff,’ to the March 1 sequester, to the April 1 potential government shutdown, crisis to crisis,” Parnell said. “And then oh, by the way, the debt limit challenge this fall as well. That’s the state of play with the federal government right now.”
Against that backdrop, Parnell argued, it is too risky for Alaska to go forward with an expansion of Medicaid.
“During the remaining days of this legislative session, I will not ask the Legislature for money or authorization to expand Medicaid,” said Parnell. “At this point, the federal government cannot even say with certainty whether it can meet its obligation to cut welfare checks on April 1st, let alone finance Medicaid expansion.”
Alaska has an option under the Affordable Care Act, the law sometimes called “Obamacare,” to allow the federal government to expand Medicaid rolls to 133 percent of the federal poverty level — largely at the latter’s expense — in the state.
But Parnell said he told U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius while in Washington, D.C., last week that he believes Alaska could end up in a tight spot if the federal government withdraws Medicaid funding amid its fiscal difficulties.
“I told the secretary that I was very concerned about expanding Medicaid where the federal government could renege on its promise to fund the lion’s share of any Medicaid expansion,” Parnell said, adding, “If we expand the Medicaid population and the federal government fails to keep its financial commitment, the state would likely have to backfill for lost federal dollars to cover beneficiaries of the expansion and to cover the health coverage of everyone currently in the program.”
Medicaid is largely shielded from the sequestration cuts.
An HHS official, asked to respond Thursday to Parnell’s remarks, pointed to a section of a December 2012 memorandum from his department addressing “frequently asked questions.”
“A state may choose whether and when to expand, and, if a state covers the expansion group, it may decide later to drop the coverage,” one FAQ answer states.
Asked whether he would veto a Medicaid expansion if it comes from the Alaska State Legislature, Parnell was noncommittal but reiterated that he opposes expanding the program.
Parnell said he will revisit the issue of Medicaid in the fiscal year 2015 budget proposal he is set to submit in December, remarking that he hopes “we will have a greater sense of direction from the federal government at that point.”
The chairman of the Alaska Democratic Party released a statement Thursday afternoon criticizing Parnell’s decision on Medicaid expansion.
“With this decision, Sean Parnell has put partisan politics ahead of Alaskans’ health and our state’s economy,” Mike Wenstrup’s statement read in part.
Parnell also said in his remarks at the press conference, “With Washington broken and broke, it just seems to me that Alaska has got to take care of ourselves and work smarter to secure its own future with the vast natural resources and the talent that we have here.”
Summarizing his thoughts a few minutes later in response to a question, Parnell added, “I concluded that Alaska has to be positioned to sustain itself economically like we were promised in statehood. I came back saying, ‘This is so messed up right now in Washington that I will do everything I can to make sure that we grow our economy here and we provide opportunities for Alaskans here without being dependent upon Washington to create those opportunities,’ because I question whether they really can anymore.”
Parnell declined to comment on a 2014 campaign, reiterating earlier statements that any announcement on his political future will come after the legislative session ends in April.
Parnell is also eligible to seek reelection in 2014.
During the press conference, Parnell also praised the Legislature, both houses of which are controlled by Republican-dominated caucuses this year. He said he has a “very high” opinion of both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
“I think they’re doing a great job of working hard on legislation that’s before them,” said Parnell.
This week marks a halfway point in the 90-day session. While oil tax reform legislation and other high-priority bills are advancing through the committee process, all but a handful of bills have yet to make it to the floor of either chamber, much less the governor’s desk.
One major bill, House Bill 80, relaxing wastewater discharge restrictions on cruise ships and allowing for mixing zones, is becoming law, Parnell announced. The governor said it received his signature Thursday morning.
• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 586-1821 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.