Attorneys for the state told the Arizona Supreme Court that voters cannot tell the Legislature what to do, at least when it comes to money.
In a somewhat unusual argument, Assistant Attorney General Kevin Ray filed legal papers Tuesday saying it is long settled law that members of one state legislature cannot tell members of future legislatures they have to spend money on certain priorities. And Ray said the 2000 voter initiative requiring the state to provide free care for everyone below the federal poverty level — currently about $18,500 a year for a family of three — is just another form of legislation, albeit by voters.
That ballot measure said the expanded program was to be paid for from tobacco tax revenues and Arizona’s share of a nationwide settlement with tobacco companies. But it also said that when those funds run short, the legislature is supposed to supplement it with other available sources.
But Ray said the people, acting as legislators through the initiative, have no more right to mandate that current lawmakers make those dollars available than would legislators who were in office in 2000.
The question of what voters can and cannot do is central to the question of whether Gov. Jan Brewer can proceed with her plans to scale back the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System.
Lawmakers, seeking to save money for the new fiscal year that begins July 1, directed Brewer to find more than $500 million in savings.
She responded by telling AHCCCS, the state’s Medicaid program, to stop enrolling childless adults beginning July 1. Medicaid does not require these individuals be covered.
Parents with incomes above 75 percent of the federal poverty level also would be denied coverage, though their children would not.
Anyone already on AHCCCS would not be affected. But about 150,000 people who are currently eligible will be turned away by the end of June 2012.
Attorneys for public interest law firms filed suit, contending lawmakers cannot ignore the mandates in the 2000 initiative.
The state is not fighting the requirement to use tobacco proceeds to fund AHCCCS. But Ray said voters, even acting as legislators in approving a law at the ballot, cannot force lawmakers in subsequent years to provide cash beyond that.
More than legal principles are at issue.
“If the court grants a preliminary injunction, the state will suffer irreparable harm,” Ray wrote. He said ordering the state to continue to enroll anyone who is below the federal poverty level would amount to directing the head of the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System to spend money the Legislature did not give the agency.
That, in turn, will bust open the budget that lawmakers adopted for the fiscal year set to take effect July 1, the same day that AHCCCS is changing its eligibility standards.
“If the court grants the injunction, the legislature and the governor will need to assume that the anticipated $282,408,600 that would have been saved from the 2011-2012 budget was not saved and will have to find a way to address that additional shortfall in the budget,” Ray said. “The deficit will require balancing, which will undoubtedly require the reduction of agency operating budgets and potential cuts to vital state services, impacting an untold number of citizens.”
The challengers, recognizing that they cannot litigate that issue between now and July 1, last week asked the Supreme Court to at least delay any change in enrollment through the end of September. That would give them a chance to make their case to the high court while ensuring that no one who otherwise would be eligible will be denied care.
But Ray said any delay will harm the budget.
Brewer, in a prepared statement, said current lawmakers should not be constrained.
“At its heart, this legal battle is about fundamental constitutional principles and ensuring that elected officials maintain their authority to make difficult financial decisions for the state of Arizona,” the governor said.