Governor Asa Hutchinson used a line item veto on Thursday afternoon to ensure the continuation of Medicaid expansion in Arkansas. The veto was part of a procedural maneuver meant to work around the resistance of a minority of Republicans blocking funding for the insurance program. It benefits over 267,000 low-income Arkansans.
Earlier on Thursday, the House of Representatives narrowly secured the three-fourths vote the funding bill needed for passage on a 76-13 vote.
The overall Department of Human Services and Medicaid funding bill, which includes Medicaid expansion, received a seemingly hostile amendment earlier in the week which would end the Arkansas Works program at the end of this year rather than 2021.
The amendment was crafted by supports of the governor’s Arkansas Works plan, with the knowledge Gov. Hutchinson would veto the new expiration date upon passage - therefore continuing the program. However, it allowed for the impasse over the funding bill to be broken because opponents of Medicaid expansion, in the minority of the GOP, had an opportunity to vote to end the program - at least until the governor's veto.
Opponents of Medicaid expansion have enough votes to block a funding bill but not enough votes to overturn a veto. Just 10 of the state's 35 senators were holding up the entire Medicaid appropriation prior to the amendment plan.
The novel approach to funding the program—passing language to end the program while relying on Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s line-item veto to reinstate it—roused Republican State Representative Kim Hendren of Gravette to the House floor. Despite being a supporter of Arkansas Works and a relative of the governor Hendren spoke against the convoluted process needed for passage.
“My ‘no’ does not mean ‘no’ and my ‘yes’ does not mean ‘yes’ because of this bill, the way it’s written,” he said, noting that he would eventually vote for the bill if it weren’t able to pass on the first vote. He ended up voting yes.
However, Republican Representative Laurie Rushing of Hot Springs, an Arkansas Works opponent, voted for the bill.
“Whether we like the fact that the Governor is...able to line-item veto is beside the point. It’s a political game. We’ve seen it played. And I’ve seen others in this chamber use the same game. Most all of us in here are guilty of using some sort of political game,” she said. "Ultimately the governor is taking the responsibility."
While the Republican governor says Medicaid expansion will now continue, Senate President Jonathan Dismang and other backers are considering additional legislation to safeguard against legal challenges to their procedural move. Speaking to reporters after a taping of AETN's Arkansas Week, the Republican from Searcy said a measure could be adopted in a future special session to re-state the 2021 expiration date for Arkansas Works, that the governor puts back in place with his veto.