Legislature 2001: Bill unlinks HESS budget, abortion

Commissioner would be in hot seat on state funding for abortions

Posted: Monday, May 07, 2001

The budget for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services will not hinge on whether a court forces the agency to pay for elective abortions after all.

Bowing to pressure from the House GOP, Fairbanks Republican Sen. Pete Kelly stripped a provision he added to a state spending plan that would have repealed the agency's entire budget if a court ordered it to fund the procedure.

However, the compromise language approved by a budget conference committee Sunday puts the commissioner of the department in the hot seat. A new provision would hold her or any other official personally and financially liable if they authorized use of state funds to pay for elective abortions, even if a court says they must, Kelly said.

"The authorizing person or entity or whatever can be liable for the authorization of this money beyond the purpose that is stated in the legislation," said Kelly, who crafted the language. "If you illegally spend state funds, you can be personally liable."

HESS Commissioner Karen Perdue saw the new language Sunday night and left a committee room to confer with attorneys. She referred questions Monday to spokesperson Bob King, who said staff is still analyzing the language.

"We're taking a look at it. That's about all I can say right now," he said.

A Superior Court judge in 1999 ruled it unconstitutional to deny state funding for elective abortions but provide other pregnancy-related services. The agency is using state money to fund the procedure under court order and against the will of Republican lawmakers.

The move sparked a Republican backlash this year against the judicial branch, touching off a flurry of efforts to slap the courts down. Although Kelly's initial language risking the HESS budget proved too unpalatable to House Republicans, he called the compromise provision "probably stronger."

Under the compromise version, the agency could use state money for abortions only if the woman's life were in danger or in cases of rape or incest - the same restrictions applied under federal law for use of federal Medicaid dollars. The new language "links" the state matching money for federal Medicaid dollars in such a way it more clearly prohibits the agency from using state funds for elective abortions, Kelly said.

"It's probably stronger language in that each general fund dollar is attached to federal dollars by purpose language so that basically we're spending Medicaid money in a way Medicaid money was supposed to be spent," Kelly said. "In all 50 states, you cannot spend Medicaid money on abortions and that's all we're trying to do."

The change was acceptable to House Republicans unwilling to risk the agency's budget, said Anchorage Rep. Eldon Mulder, one of four Republicans on the conference committee that approved the language.

"There's no poison pill, we've taken that out," he said.

The provision immediately was condemned by Fairbanks Democrat Rep. John Davies, who called it a "smaller version of the poison pill."

"Instead of holding hostage the entire budget, this holds hostage a small portion of the budget," said Davies, one of two Democrats on the panel to vote against the provision.

On another battlefront, the Senate on Sunday passed a separate anti-abortion bill, also sponsored by Kelly. The measure specifies in law the constitutional right to privacy does not mean people are entitled to state money, state services or state benefits. Kelly is pushing the bill because courts in the past have upheld state-paid abortions for poor women by invoking the right-to-privacy clause.

"It's simple language. You have a right to privacy. I don't have to pay for it. That's all this is about," Kelly said during floor debate.

Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat, attacked the bill Sunday while talking to reporters.

"It is the most frontal attack on a constitutional right in a discriminatory way that I have seen, and I think they should be embarrassed."

The bill now heads to the House.

Kathy Dye can be reached at kdye@juneauempire.com.

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