- Associated Press - Friday, May 6, 2016

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - The Alaska House has given notice that it plans to keep fighting Gov. Bill Walker’s authority to expand Medicaid on his own, drawing criticism from minority Democrats who oppose continuing the legal battle.

Lawmakers faced a deadline for whether to appeal a judge’s decision dismissing a lawsuit initially filed last summer by the Legislative Council, which is made up of House and Senate members. Attorneys representing the council filed a notice of appeal on behalf of the House on Thursday and said they planned to seek an order substituting the House for the Legislative Council in the litigation.

Walker, in a statement Friday, called the developments disappointing given the magnitude of the issues the state is facing.

Critics contend that the appeal is not permissible because a vote of the House and Senate is needed while the Legislature is in session, according to the Legislature’s top attorney, Doug Gardner. In a memo outlining authority for deciding an appeal, Gardner wrote that if only one chamber passed a resolution or motion calling for an appeal, that chamber would have to substitute itself for the Legislature as the party of interest in the case.

There have been no public votes on whether to appeal. Minority Democrats, hoping to force the issue, were blocked from bringing the question to a vote last month.

House Minority Leader Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, said his caucus opposes the lawsuit. “Plain and simple, this is an abuse of power by the majority leadership in the House,” he said in a release.

“They can’t just unilaterally make that decision,” Tuck said in an interview.

Some legislative leaders have said the lawsuit was undertaken with the expectation that it would go to the Alaska Supreme Court.

Jeremiah Campbell, deputy press secretary for the House majority, said by email that an appeal was “legally filed” and the lawsuit is proceeding. Campbell was not aware of how the decision to proceed was made.

A message seeking comment was left Friday at the Juneau legislative office of House Rules Chairman Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage.

The council argued in its lawsuit that the population covered by the Medicaid expansion is an optional group, which must be approved by the Legislature. Supporters of the case saw it as a separation-of-powers issue.

However, a state court judge in March upheld Walker’s action, finding the federal Social Security Act requires Medicaid expansion.

Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, said this week that he had recommended lawmakers drop the case. While he said he backed the lawsuit, he felt support had dissipated.

He said the issue added to an already contentious situation as lawmakers try to reach agreements on the budget and other matters to end the extended legislative session.

More than 16,700 people have been covered by expanded Medicaid since expansion began last September, according to the state health department.

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