90th General Assembly Of The Arkansas Legislature To Convene

Jan 12, 2015

The 89th House of Representatives floor.
Credit Chris Hickey / KUAR

KAUFFMAN: We’re on the verge of the 90th General Assembly convening, there’s historic power in the hands of Republicans and some truly major issues at stake this year. Let’s begin with what might be the legacy of the last governor, the private option. A lot of legislative leaders say it needs to be more conservative. What might that look like and what ideas have been proposed.

DEMILLO: We’re not getting too much in terms of details in terms of what might happen with the private option. We’re just coming off of an election where you had several opponents of the Medicaid expansion who were elected who basically ran on vows to end the program.

The Senate President Jonathan Dismang who is one of the architects of the private option has already acknowledged that the private option as it exists in its current form is not going to exist anymore. They’re going to have to make significant changes. He’s offered a few details on what that might mean, one of which is trying to tie it to workforce development and that might mean including some kind of work requirement where people on the program have to be employed or seeking employment. And looking at broader changes to Medicaid as a whole he says that this session is really going to test the federal government’s willingness to really test the boundaries of the private option which already the federal government is giving the state a lot of flexibility here. 

KAUFFMAN: Prison overcrowding has plagued the state and county jails. One proposal, that doesn’t seem to have a lot of support though, is the idea of a $100 million prison to adjust for some of the overcrowding at least. What are some of the other ideas being floated? There’s a big shortage of transitional housing as well.

DEMILLO: Yeah, prison overcrowding is definitely going to be a major issue here. You’ve got county jails around the state that are overcrowded with state inmates. We’re getting the impression hearing from legislative leaders that the biggest proposal, the most expensive proposal a $100 million, 1,000 bed new prison really isn’t getting much traction right now. They’re looking at alternative proposals that includes like you said more transitional housing, looks at existing buildings to house inmates, but also even the possibility of using private facilities, of having some inmates go to private facilities in Louisiana.

Hearing form legislative leaders they’ve basically said, the House Speaker and Senate President have both said that they see a new prison as the last option. They’re a lot more interested in these alternatives. I think it’s partly because the cost of it and also because the funding mechanism that’s been proposed for this prison isn’t very popular. The idea would be to raise car tag fees, which you’ve got a Republican led legislature that really is not too keen on the idea of raising any fees or any taxes.

KAUFFMAN: There’s also campaign promises for tax cuts. It really defined Asa Hutchinson’s campaign in a lot of ways. A $100 million income tax cut has been his main priority going into the session. How does that tax cut factor into all of these other budget issues?

DEMILLO: It really is going to be the biggest issue surrounding the budget. As you said, Asa Hutchinson was elected primarily on a vow to cut income taxes for the middle class, something that will cost the state about $100 million a year in revenue. He’s already said that he wants the legislature to move quickly on it. The House Speaker and Senate President are actually co-sponsoring the legislation for that tax cut and said that they want to take that up pretty early on in the session.

The question will be, can you cut that much in taxes without affecting services. The incoming governor and legislative leaders say they believe in a $5 billion budget that there is room, especially when you look at revenue growth and surpluses that the state has run in recent years. But you also have folks who point out concerns, they point to states like Kansas that have enacted major tax cuts and then have had budget problems afterwards and kind of looking at that as a cautionary tale.

KAUFFMAN: We’ve talked a lot about what Republicans might do, about Republican plans. Democratic ranks, they were in the minority last session, but clearly decimated from this last election. Some of their main ideas like pre-K funding seems like it’s a non-starter with a lot of Republicans. Do you have any insight into how Democrats really understand their role as a minority party now?

DEMILLO: Not really at this point. I think it’s mainly because you still see Democrats trying to adjust to that. Democrats were a minority party last session, but even more so this time with the way Republicans have expanded their ranks. The big test on that may come with the private option.

It’s going to take a three-fourths vote to reauthorize the private option and Democrats are still going to have…with a three-fourths requirement, one-fourth of the body can still have a large amount of power. You’re going to see Democrats being reached out to especially if there are these reforms called conservative reforms to Medicaid and the private option, really trying to get them on board to get that magic number to reauthorize it.