MADISON, Wis. (AP) – The Wisconsin attorney general has rejected Democratic Gov. Tony Evers request to withdraw from a multi-state lawsuit targeting the Affordable Care Act, saying in a letter released Thursday that only the Republican-controlled Legislature now has the power to take such action.
The decision is a setback for Evers and Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul, who were elected in November and oppose the lawsuit that seeks to repeal the federal health care law. Evers on Tuesday directed Kaul to withdraw from the case , but he later tempered the request after Republican legislative leaders and a nonpartisan legislative attorney said Evers didn’t have the authority to make the order.
The Wisconsin governor previously had such authority, but Republicans stripped that power during a lame-duck legislative session last month. The legislation making the change was quickly signed by then-Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican who supports the lawsuit but was defeated by Evers in his bid for a third term. Other successful legislation also weakened Kaul’s powers.
The law change gave the Legislature’s GOP-controlled Joint Finance Committee the power to withdraw the states from lawsuits. Kaul, in a three-paragraph letter to Evers, wrote that the Wisconsin Department of Justice “does not have statutory authority to withdraw the State from the ACA litigation absent approval from the Joint Committee on Finance.”
Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said Thursday that the Justice Department would seek approval from the committee to withdraw. Kaul spokeswoman Gillian Drummond did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
Republican Sen. Alberta Darling, one of the co-chairs of the committee that will make the decision, had not received any letter from Evers or Kaul seeking withdrawal from the lawsuit, said her spokesman, Bob Delaporte.
A federal judge in Texas last month declared the Affordable Care Act to be unconstitutional, but its provisions remain in effect while the case is under appeal.
Evers’ flip flop Wednesday drew derision from Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who tweeted “(hash)AmateurHour.” Baldauff said Republicans were making a “distraction” by focusing on how the Justice Department would comply with the new state law related to withdrawing from the lawsuit.
“Republicans know that people don’t support their plans to gut the Affordable Care Act and are desperate to change the conversation,” she said. “But the real story isn’t complicated: the governor is ready to move forward with protecting the health care of millions of Wisconsinites.”
Evers has yet to embrace a bill making its way through the Legislature that guarantees access to health insurance for people with pre-existing medical conditions in Wisconsin. The Assembly passed it on a bipartisan vote Tuesday, but Evers was skeptical, saying he was disappointed the measure didn’t go farther to protect other essential health services.
The Assembly passed a similar bill last session but it died in the Senate. It’s unclear whether this year’s version has enough support there to pass, or whether Evers would sign it.
A Marquette University Law School poll released Thursday showed that 48 percent of respondents supported Wisconsin withdrawing from the lawsuit, while 42 percent wanted to continue. The poll of 800 registered voters was conducted between Jan. 16 and Sunday and had an error rate of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.