Legislators move to block McKenna on lawsuit

March 25, 2010 

Democrats have tightened the purse strings on Attorney General Rob McKenna in an attempt to limit Washington's role in challenging health care reform.

At lawmakers’ behest, the governor’s budget office has subjected the Republican’s agency to a freeze on state contracts, canceling an exemption awarded days earlier.

State leaders might go further. Gov. Chris Gregoire said Wednesday that she is open to an idea being weighed by legislative leaders: a budget proviso that would block McKenna from spending state money on a 13-state lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the health care reform effort signed into law Tuesday by President Barack Obama.

Rep. Kelli Linville, chairwoman of the state House budget committee, asked for the contract authority to be pulled and is among those considering a budget proviso. The Bellingham Democrat said McKenna has a right to speak his mind, but not to spend state money counter to the wishes of the Legislature and governor.

“The only thing I’m concerned about is not expending revenues now on something like this, that basically I don’t agree with, instead of other things that we could spend money on,” Linville said.

Hours after Congress approved the bill to overhaul the nation’s health care system, McKenna announced he would join other state attorneys general in challenging it.

The bill’s mandate that people buy health insurance or face fines is unconstitutional, McKenna said. Never before has Congress required people to buy a product, he said.

Gregoire and legislative leaders rushed to complain that McKenna doesn’t represent them. Far from it, they said: Washington patients and taxpayers will benefit from the regulations, funding shifts and government aid contained in the law.

The dispute comes with political significance for the next governor’s race. McKenna is seen as a potential candidate in 2012.

A spokesman for McKenna’s office said the office is waiting to comment about any potential budget move until seeing what comes of legislators’ talks.

The freeze on contracts won’t affect the lawsuit, spokesman Dan Sytman said. McKenna has no intention of going outside his agency for help. He will leave the lead state on the lawsuit, Florida, to shoulder most of the work, Sytman said. Lawyers in his office could contribute occasionally.

“In terms of a cost to taxpayers – something that we’re very mindful of – minimal, to put it lightly,” Sytman said.

But lawmakers’ concerns prompted Office of Financial Management Director Victor Moore on Tuesday to revoke a blanket exemption for McKenna on the freeze the Legislature ordered in February.

The exemption, granted Friday, allowed the attorney general’s office to pay private attorneys, expert witnesses, mediators and others to help on cases without getting separate approval from the bean counters in the governor’s office.

With the exemption gone, the financial office will now scrutinize every request for outside spending.

The office could work out a deal with McKenna to limit the freeze to spending related to suing the federal government. Linville said: “We obviously wouldn’t want to keep him from doing his regular job.”

Voters elect the attorney general, and McKenna’s office said in a statement on his Web site that he is an independent check on other parts of state government.

At least one budget writer said blocking funding would cross a line on the separation of powers.

“There are a lot of court decisions that I don’t agree with that the Washington State Supreme Court has made recently. Does that mean I stop funding them?” asked Senate budget committee vice-chairman Rodney Tom, D-Medina.

The ranking Republican on the subcommittee overseeing McKenna’s budget, Rep. Jim McCune of Graham, said it’s McKenna’s right to sue. “It sounds like it’s appropriate, if (the health care law is) unconstitutional.”

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