By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin attorney general has rejected Gov. Tony Evers’ request to withdraw from a multi-state lawsuit targeting the Affordable Care Act, saying in a letter released on Thursday that only the Republican-controlled Legislature now has the power to take such a step.
The decision is a setback for Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul, Democrats who were elected in November and who have criticized the lawsuit, which seeks to repeal the federal health-care law commonly known as Obamacare. Evers on Tuesday directed Kaul to withdraw from the case, but he later tempered the request after Republican legislative leaders and a non-partisan legislative attorney said Evers didn’t have the authority to make such an 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.
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 on Thursday that the Justice Department would seek approval from the committee to withdraw for the suit. Kaul’s spokeswoman Gillian Drummond did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
Sen. Alberta Darling, a Republican, had not received any letter from Evers or Kaul seeking withdrawal from the lawsuit, said her spokesman, Bob Delaporte.
Last month, a federal judge in Texas declared the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional, but its provisions remain in effect while the case is under appeal.
Evers’ flip flop on Wednesday drew derision from Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a Republican who tweeted “#AmateurHour.” Baldauff said Republicans were causing a “distraction.”
“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 to guarantee access to health insurance for people in Wisconsin with pre-existing medical conditions. The Assembly passed the proposal in a bipartisan vote on 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 the version has enough support there to pass this year, or whether Evers would sign it.
A Marquette University Law School poll released on Thursday showed that 48 percent of the respondents supported having Wisconsin withdraw from the lawsuit, but that 42 percent wanted to continue. The poll of 800 registered voters was conducted from Jan. 16 to Sunday and had an error rate of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.