Drew to Legislature: ‘Fish or cut bait’

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 16-Apr-2010

Attorney General Drew Edmondson this afternoon (Friday, April 16) called on Republicans in the Legislature to “fish or cut bait” when it comes to proposed legislation that might compel him to join the Florida lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the federal health care law. In response to a suggestion from CapitolBeatOK that perhaps legislators were still reading the 2,700-page law, Edmondson commented, “That would be a pleasant surprise.”

During an unannounced “drop-by” visit with reporters in the state Capitol press room, Edmondson said he thought it was time for “Ms. Fallin and Mr. Brogdon to jump on Republican legislative leaders, and not me” for inaction. Edmondson appeared to be responding to renewed criticisms of his decision not to join the lawsuit unless ordered to do so.

The attorney general specified, “the delay in acting on this seems a bit contradictory to me, after they told me to ‘hurry up and don’t bother to read the bill.’” He said, “This suggests a lot of this has been about politics and not about the law itself.” Edmondson noted the underlying resolution on the issue was introduced in January. “If they were serious, they could have acted on this by Monday and gotten the ball rolling.”

Edmondson reported he received 1,018 phone calls before his press conference last week. Four of those calls, he said, had encouraged him to stay out of the litigation. The remainder asked him to join efforts to overturn the law on constitutional grounds. Since last Friday, he indicated the phone call volume had dropped precipitously, that he had received a few letters “pretty much 50-50” for and against his decision. He observed, “The polls indicate a majority of Oklahomans are opposed to the law.”

In response to question, Edmondson did not criticize his opponent in the Democratic party’s gubernatorial primary, saying Lt. Gov. Jari Askins “hasn’t really had a role to play on this one.” He reiterated that if Republican concerns about the law’s constitutionality were serious, he did not understand why the Legislature had not acted with dispatch this week: “But if it’s just politics on their part, why not let it hang around another two weeks?”

Edmondson restated he knew of “no legal writing that suggests we can opt out of this law.” He pointed to social security, Medicare, occupational safety and health and minimum wage as examples of areas where federal law is controlling, regardless of state-level preferences.

The attorney general also said that although at least three governors have acted to join litigation against the new law, “only the attorneys general can speak for the state on these issues.” He said litigation would be expensive and discovery-based, requiring depositions from public officials who could speak to the state’s costs under the law. He said that even if “pro bono” work were performed for the state, at the end of the litigation if the state lost – “as I expect would be the case” – Oklahoma’s government would still be on the hook for some share of the federal government’s expenses.

In response to a question about how he handles the issue on the campaign trail as he seeks the state’s top job, Edmondson said he is “very disappointed in the process itself. Any effort at bipartisanship failed.” He said that popular frustration with the process in Washington and in politics is so deep, “the voters may just say ‘a pox on both your houses.’ He added, “We have got to learn to work together.”

Edmondson also said it was unclear exactly what the long-term budget impact of the new law will be on the state, due to the phased-in implementation of the measure’s provisions and costs. He also said a Virginia case raises legal issues distinct from those in the state-based challenges. He noted that Virginia has a statute that might create a basis for the view that the health care law’s mandate for individual coverage is infirm. However, he says Oklahoma no similar law.

Edmondson said that time devoted to the health care litigation issue “simply detracts from the really important issues for Oklahoma’s future, growing our economy and creating more jobs.”