- Associated Press - Sunday, January 31, 2016

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - The focus on Medicaid will shift this week from the Capitol to a courtroom during an ongoing fight over expanded coverage in Alaska. Also, legislators plan to revive a bill calling for the federal government to transfer lands to the state. And a House committee is set to begin reviewing Gov. Bill Walker’s plan to overhaul oil and gas tax credits.

A few things to know for the week ahead at the Alaska Legislature:

MEDICAID

Legislators plan to meet this week on bills aimed at curbing and containing costs within Medicaid. Meanwhile, on Thursday, a judge in Anchorage plans to hear arguments in a lawsuit challenging Walker’s authority to expand Medicaid without legislative approval.

The case was brought by the Legislative Council, comprised of House and Senate members. Legislators who support the lawsuit see this as a separation of powers issue. Critics, including minority Democrats, want the case dropped.

The argument in the case centers on whether the expansion population is a mandatory group for coverage under Medicaid or an optional group. The federal health care law expanded eligibility for Medicaid, but the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 said states could not be penalized for not participating in expanding the program.

The lawsuit contends that the expansion population is an optional group that cannot be covered unless approved by the Legislature. Attorneys for Walker argue the high court’s decision did not strike down the provision expanding eligibility but instead struck down a penalty for states that do not comply with it. Walker last year accepted an Anchorage law firm’s offer to help the Department of Law with the case pro bono.

Walker followed a process by which a governor goes through the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee when seeking to spend more in federal or other funds on a budget item than allocated by the Legislature. A governor can proceed even if the committee disagrees. Walker acted after lawmakers tabled expansion for further review.

At the end of 2015, about 8,000 Alaskans had enrolled in expanded Medicaid, according to the state health department.

LAND BILL

The Senate Resources Committee on Wednesday plans to hear a bill from House Speaker Mike Chenault calling for the federal government to turn over to the state the title to lands it holds by Jan. 1. The bill would exclude national park lands, land used for military purposes and land to which title is held by a person.

If you look at the amount of land controlled by the federal government across the West, you can see why many states are concerned, Chenault said. He cited concern with being able to develop resources due to federal overreach or access issues.

A legislative attorney, in a memo to Chenault last year, called the bill unconstitutional, and Chenault, R-Nikiski, said some will consider it so. But he said the plan is to push ahead and see if it can pass. If it does pass, then “let’s fight it out in court,” he said.

A similar debate is occurring in Utah, with government officials debating a lawsuit.

OIL AND GAS TAX CREDITS

On Wednesday, House Resources plans to begin hearing Walker’s proposed tax credit overhaul, which includes raising the minimum tax rate on North Slope oil and not allowing credits to be used to lower the tax rate below the minimum level. The bill repeal certain credits, among other things.

It’s part of an effort to get a handle on the cost of credits. Alaska is facing multibillion-dollar deficits amid low oil prices. Walker has called the current credit system unsustainable.

For the current budget year, Walker limited the amount available for oil and gas tax credits to $500 million, delaying payout of credits above that. Credits affected were for explorers or companies developing fields but not yet in production on the North Slope and in Cook Inlet. Walker has said the state will honor its credit commitments.

Separately, the administration has proposed establishing a loan program that Walker says is meant to help small- and medium-sized oil and gas producers reliant on outside financing. In a letter accompanying the bill, Walker said the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority would be required to ensure that participating companies do not apply for or accept an exploration and development or production tax credit from the state. The authority would administer the program.

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Online:

Alaska Legislature: http://w3.legis.state.ak.us/

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