Anti-abortion language stays in Senate budget

Posted: Tuesday, April 10, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- Majority Republicans in the Senate adopted an operating budget Monday that calls for the Health and Social Services Department budget to fail if a judge rules the state must fund abortions for poor women.

Attempts by minority Democrats to strip that language from the bill failed, but it still could be removed later in the process.

Differences between the House and Senate versions of the budget for the 2002 fiscal year must be resolved by a joint conference committee -- and the Senate's abortion language is one of those differences.

Also, Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles could veto that language in the bill, although it's not clear the veto would stand. The governor has line-item veto power on the budget, but a court case on whether the governor can veto language -- or just numbers -- in budget bills is pending before the Supreme Court, Knowles' spokesman Bob King said.

Senate Democrats took their first shot at removing the abortion language with amendments to the $2.24 billion budget Monday.

''You're substituting or inserting doctrine in a bill that should only have dollars inserted,'' Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, argued in support of his amendment.

Minority Leader Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, said the abortion language is a ''blackmail clause'' that could shut down a department that checks out cases of child abuse, runs juvenile jails and provides food stamps and medical care to poor people.

''This is a list of horrors,'' Ellis said.

But Sen. Loren Leman, R-Anchorage, said none of that will happen unless someone challenges the anti-abortion language and a judge tries to force the Legislature to pay for the procedure. The bill would provide exceptions if a woman's life was at risk from the pregnancy or if the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest.

Senate Finance Committee Co-Chairman Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, said the committee inserted the language last week out of frustration with court rulings that have forced the state to provide abortions to poor women despite repeated efforts by the Legislature to bar the use of state funds for the procedure.

A 1999 ruling that forced the state to pay for medically advised abortions for poor women has been appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court heard arguments in November, but hasn't ruled yet.

Kelly said all legislators should favor the measure because it's an attempt to defend the Legislature's right to approriate funds.

''It is incumbent on us who sit in these chairs to protect our branch of government,'' Kelly said.

Kelly has also downplayed the risk of the department shutting down, saying if a court once again ruled against the Legislature, it could seek a stay of the court's decision and would go into special session to figure out how to proceed.

The Democrats' amendments failed 14-6 along party lines. Three Republican senators -- Drue Pearce of Anchorage, John Torgerson of Kasilof and Randy Phillips of Chugiak -- voted against the budget itself. It passed on a narrow 11-9 margin.

The budget will now go to a House and Senate conference committee to work out a compromise on differences in the two bills.

House Finance Co-Chairman Eldon Mulder, R-Anchorage, said last week he doesn't know whether House members of the committee will accept the anti-abortion language. But Mulder said many Republicans in the House share the Senate Finance Committee's frustration with the judiciary.

If the conference committee doesn't change the language, minority Democrats may still have some leverage to bargain for a change. At least a few minority Democrats must give their support to the budget for the Legislature to take money from the Constitutional Budget Reserve, a savings account that will be needed to pay for the budget.

Knowles would not say specifically Monday whether he'd attempt to veto the abortion provision if it passes the full Legislature.

''I don't use that word until it gets to my desk,'' Knowles said. But he said he strongly opposes the budget language.

''I don't believe we should play brinksmanship for political agendas with Alaska's families,'' Knowles said. ''Whatever measures I need to apply to it that I have within the powers of my office I will.''

A veto is likely to trigger a lawsuit. Not only does the bill call for the Health and Social Services budget to fail if a court rules the state must fund abortions, the bill also repeals the department's budget if the governor vetoes that language in the bill.

Knowles spokesman King said it's not clear whether the governor could legally veto the anti-veto language.

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