When the Legislature gavels in on Tuesday, there are a few things it must deal with. There’s the multi-billion dollar deficit the state faces. There’s also work to be done on Alaska’s marijuana laws, after voters decided to legalize and regulate the drug in November. This full agenda means other controversial subjects may take a backseat. Lawmakers expect bills on social issues, like abortion, to get less attention than last cycle.
When Republicans took control of both chambers of the Legislature two years ago, social conservatives viewed it as a win. Legislation restricting Medicaid payments for abortion, a long-standing priority for them, finally got hearings and was even signed into law before being enjoined by the courts.
But even though the composition of the Legislature is mostly the same, advocates for anti-abortion measures — like waiting periods and clinic regulations — aren’t expecting to get as much traction, due to the attention on the state’s budget.
Jim Minnery is the president of Alaska Family Action.
“It’s just one more session with just one more reason to put our issues on the backburner,” says Minnery. “We’re sort of the ugly stepchild in the room when it comes to issues down in Juneau. I mean even our allies sometimes have a hard time charging the hill.”
Beyond a climate where lawmakers are more focused on fiscal issues, leadership of some of the committees that traditionally address abortion bills has changed in a way that is less friendly to such legislation.
One of the Senate’s more moderate Republicans, Lesil McGuire, has taken over the Judiciary committee. She takes the reins from Sen. John Coghill, a socially conservative Republican from North Pole, who sponsored the Medicaid abortion bill and shepherded it through the Senate.
With the Health committees, both the House chair — Homer Republican Paul Seaton — and the Senate Chair — Sitka Republican Bert Stedman — have voted against legislation restricting abortion access.
Over the past 20 years, all but one bill concerning abortion has been sent to Judiciary, to Health and Social Services, or both. The one exception was legislation to create a “Choose Life” license plate.
Senate President Kevin Meyer says that trend will likely continue if an abortion bill is introduced this session.
“That seems like the appropriate places,” says Meyer.
Minnery sees that as an obstacle to abortion legislation moving forward.
“Certainly I can’t say we were pleased with Seaton and Stedman being given those chairs, because they’ve shown a repeated resistance to advancing our legislation,” says Minnery.
Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest is also looking at the committee chairs, but from the opposite policy perspective.
“We’re tracking who these committee chairs are,” says Jennifer Allen, a policy director with the group. “We haven’t seen them in action yet, so we don’t know what that’s going to look like. But again, we will simply keep talking to them about why they should be setting aside any anti-abortion bills and addressing the real issues that affect Alaska women’s health.”
House Health Chair Paul Seaton says would like to hold hearings on all bills assigned to his committee, no matter the subject matter. But he says that the Legislature’s biggest fight over abortion — how the term “medically necessary” should be defined for the purposes of Medicaid reimbursement — has already played out.
“On that issue particularly, there’s already been a bill on that. There’s already been regulations which are being challenged in court,” says Seaton. “So I think that’s already probably progressed as far as that’s going to be.”
But the way Medicaid treats abortion could get attention from the Legislature in another way, because of the nebulous status of that law. Last year, a judge issued an injunction against the law, which allows Medicaid reimbursements only in cases where a woman’s life or “physical health” is seriously at risk, after Planned Parenthood challenged its constitutionality.
Medicaid expansion is a top priority of Gov. Bill Walker, who campaigned heavily on the issue. The socially conservative lobby, led by Jim Minnery, is opposing the proposal on the grounds that it could expand abortion coverage.
So far, none of the early bills that have been filed address abortion, though there is legislation supported by social conservatives that would change the makeup of the state’s judicial council. Sen. John Coghill is working on bills to regulate abortion, but says that dealing with the state’s fiscal problems will come first.
Senate President Kevin Meyer agrees.
“Well, they won’t be a priority but that’s not to say that they won’t get through the process, get on the floor, and still get passed this year,” says Meyer.
If an abortion restriction bill makes it through the Legislature, it may put Walker in a difficult situation. Walker personally opposes abortion, and sought support from Alaska Family Action earlier in his political career when he was registered as a Republican. When he abandoned his party affiliation and merged his ticket with Democrat Byron Mallott, Walker said he would not advance an anti-abortion agenda and, at one point, stated he would veto anti-abortion bills before later rescinding that statement.
Minnery says Alaska Family Action hopes to “rekindle its relationship” with Walker.