House passes ‘fast-track’ supplemental budget, with money for Medicaid and ferries

JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) — The supplemental budget’s description as a “fast-track” bill was becoming something of a joke in the House, where until Monday it was delayed day after day for the majority caucus to become just that — a majority.

But on Monday, with most of the majority healthy and back in Juneau, the House passed the bill with its tens of millions of dollars for Medicaid, ferries and prisons. The lopsided vote was 32-7.

The bill supplements the current year’s budget with money that was unanticipated or otherwise left out last year, a shortfall that turned out to be more than $100 million. And the fast-track bill is only one of two supplementals — another, more controversial “slow track” measure is expected to be included in the the capital budget later this year.

The fast-track bill, House Bill 321, got its name because the two co-chairs in each of the House and Senate finance committees have agreed to its contents. Identical versions are expected to pass each chamber, forestalling the need for negotiations in a joint conference committee. The finance committees in each body are each co-chaired by a Republican and a Democrat, though all four are leaders of their majority coalitions.

But that bipartisanship didn’t mean the bill passed Monday without controversy. The final vote followed several amendments proposed by minority members that failed.

Only one succeeded — reducing additional payments to the Department of Corrections from $10.5 million to $8 million.

Failing minority amendments would have reinvigorated the Juneau Access project — a new road to a northern ferry terminal, and perhaps someday to the road system at Skagway or Haines — and provide disclosure involving litigation the state lost.

The biggest chunk of money in the supplemental budget also came as an amendment, but it was brought by Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, a co-chair of the House Finance Committee. The amendment added $45 million for Medicaid — about half the amount needed by the state for the current year. Seaton and Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, the other co-chair, said nearly all the Medicaid money was needed by “traditional” recipients, not the ones added when Gov. Bill Walker expanded Medicaid under Obamacare.

“Medicaid expansion was not the cause of this,” Seaton said. “This was due to the Alaska recession and more people qualifying for regular Medicaid.”

If that’s the case, said minority Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, the state should be doing more to increase employment — like pushing the construction and mining jobs could follow approval of the Juneau Access project.

Earlier this session, Medicaid was considered too controversial to be in the fast track bill. But then the state said it was about out of money and would stop paying Medicaid providers. The Alaska State Hospital & Nursing Home Association warned in a letter March 2 that some small hospitals and nursing homes in Alaska without a lot of capital might go out of business — even though the state would eventually pay up.

The warning led to an agreement in the House and Senate to add $45 million to the fast-track bill for Medicaid. Another $45 million is expected to be in the other supplemental budget.

The final lopsided vote showed substantial support for the budget bill by the House Republican minority. But some majority members had been concerned that the minority would vote as a bloc against the bill if the majority was unable to pass it on its own. It takes 21 representatives to pass a bill, and until Monday, the 22-member House majority was short at least two of its members.

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