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Senate Democrats tried but failed Monday to strip an abortion provision in a Republican spending plan that could lead to a shutdown of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.
The $2.2 billion operating budget passed the Senate intact with three Republicans splitting from the majority to vote against it. Juneau Democrat Sen. Kim Elton tried to remove the abortion language from the bill, saying it was probably unconstitutional.
"What we're doing is holding hostage constituents of Health and Social Services and that's unacceptable. It sets a dangerous precedent," Elton argued.
The budget prohibits the department from using state money to fund elective abortions for poor women. However, if a lawsuit is filed challenging the language and a court orders the agency to immediately fund the procedure anyway, the department's entire budget would collapse.
"Not only are we holding Alaska innocents hostage - our most vulnerable, frail neighbors - but the method of hostage taking is probably unconstitutional," Elton said.
The man behind the language said the issue goes beyond whether lawmakers are pro-life or pro-choice. It's about separation of powers, said Fairbanks Republican Sen. Pete Kelly. Republicans have tried to stop state funding of most abortions before, but a judge in 1999 deemed the ban unconstitutional, saying the state couldn't discriminate among pregnancy-related services. The agency is now funding the procedure under court order and the state has appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court, which heard arguments in November but hasn't ruled. Kelly argued courts have no right to dictate how state money is spent.
"The power of appropriations is in the constitution, it is very specifically in the constitution, and that appropriation power lies with the Legislature, not with the judiciary," Kelly said.
Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis criticized Republicans for putting the department in the middle of their battle with the courts. If the department shuts down, needy people who depend on programs run by the agency would suffer, he said.
"I think you should know what could potentially occur to the Alaska public. There are 14,000 poor, blind, disabled and elderly Alaskans who depend on a monthly check for medical coverage and basic necessities," said Ellis, an Anchorage Democrat. "Rents going unpaid, landlords forced to evict tenants, 18,000 poor families with children lose cash assistance, 40,000 poor Alaskans lose food stamps."
Kelly later said the department probably would shut down temporarily if a court rejected the language - at least until lawmakers convened a special session to deal with the agency's budget. However, he argued the court could prevent a shutdown by postponing the effective date of its decision while the state goes through the appeals process.
Gov. Tony Knowles on Monday called the language unacceptable, saying he would use whatever powers he has against it. However, it's unclear whether he has the power to veto the language, said Knowles' spokesman Bob King. Although the state constitution allows the governor to delete or reduce appropriations, King said the courts are still deciding whether he can veto other language in appropriations bills.
"He said he would use every tool in his powers to fight this," King said. "The full extent of his powers are not known."
The budget now heads to a House and Senate conference committee to work out a compromise. House Finance Co-chairman Eldon Mulder said he doesn't know whether House lawmakers will accept the Senate language, but he didn't rule it out.
"Their approach, while a bit different from the House, isn't dramatically different," said Mulder, an Anchorage Republican. "The House also had provisions which restricted public funding for abortion," although it didn't tie the provision to the agency's entire budget.
Kathy Dye can be reached at email@example.com.