Brewer vows Senate leader won't derail Medicaid plan

She pursues vote on AHCCCS expansion with other legislators
2013-05-07T00:00:00Z Brewer vows Senate leader won't derail Medicaid planHoward Fischer Capitol Media Services Arizona Daily Star

PHOENIX - Facing a recalcitrant Senate president, Gov. Jan Brewer said Monday she is instead working with individual lawmakers - and around Andy Biggs - in her bid to expand the state's Medicaid program.

Biggs has sworn he will do "everything in my power" to keep any Medicaid legislation from even getting to the floor for a vote. And his position gives him vast power to decide where to assign measures for a hearing or even whether to schedule a debate.

But Biggs conceded his powers are not absolute. And Brewer, who at one time was the Senate majority leader, said she is "working with members of the Legislature" to secure a vote.

"And we will get it through," she said.

Brewer's plan would provide free care to anyone below 138 percent of the federal poverty level, about $26,000 a year for a family of three. That would add about 300,000 people to the 1.3 million already in the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, or AHCCCS.

She says her plan essentially would be cost-free to Arizona taxpayers, with the federal government kicking in $1.6 billion and the state's $240 million share picked up through a new tax on hospitals.

Biggs remains adamant in his opposition, at least in part because he fears the federal government won't live up to its end of the bargain. And he is not moved by Brewer's inclusion of a "circuit breaker" to roll back the program if federal funding drops below 80 percent of cost.

The question of how proceed, despite Biggs, clearly has crossed the mind of some Republicans who side with Brewer on Medicaid expansion.

Sen. Rich Crandall, R-Mesa, said one way to moot Biggs' opposition and get the bill to the floor would be a "discharge petition." That allows 18 senators in the 30-member chamber to force a bill to the floor without the consent of the president.

That procedure was last used in the 2001-2002 legislative session when the Senate was split 15-15.

If Brewer can hold on to all 13 Senate Democrats, it would take just five of the 17 Republicans to schedule a vote.

Brewer sidestepped questions about whether GOP senators would go around Biggs to get a vote on her plan.

"I'm not going to go there with that drama that people are proposing, or rumor-mongering if you will," the governor said.

"I think we can get through this," she continued. "And we'll do it the right way."

While a discharge petition remains a legal option - and there appear to be enough Republicans who support Medicaid expansion - it still could be hard sell.

"I don't think there is the stomach to do that right now," said Sen. Steve Pierce, R-Prescott, one of the more outspoken supporters of Medicaid expansion.

And Crandall said the question comes down not to whether the Senate could mount a successful discharge petition, but whether it should do so.

"That sets a dangerous precedent," he said. Crandall compared it to overriding the governor of one's own party or, potentially more significant, recalling a member of the same party.

Of course, the whole question of bypassing Biggs is contingent on having sufficient votes in the House, and House Speaker Andy Tobin giving the go-ahead for a vote.

Tobin, like Biggs, opposes the plan, at least as proposed by the governor. He said that version will not be allowed to come to the House floor.

But unlike Biggs, Tobin said he is open to allowing a vote on some variation that satisfies a majority of House Republicans.

Which raises an entirely different problem.

Some House opposition comes from GOP lawmakers who want the plan to include language designed to keep any Medicaid funds for family planning from going to Planned Parenthood. While Brewer initially rejected that request, the governor said she is now willing to deal to get the votes.

That, however, could cost Brewer the support of some of the Democrats whose votes she needs.

"I'm always worried about losing votes on any piece of legislation I propose," the governor said Monday. But Brewer said she thinks the Democrats won't desert, even if some language aimed at Planned Parenthood is included.

"I think they realize how important it is to the citizens of Arizona and for the welfare of our state," she said.

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