Arkansas Legislature Begins Special Session, Private Option & Common Core Discussed

Feb 10, 2014

The Arkansas Senate convenes Monday afternoon at the state Capitol.
Credit Chris Hickey / KUAR

Arkansas lawmakers have opened a legislative session that's expected to focus on the future of the state's compromise plan to expand Medicaid under the federal health care law.

The House and Senate convened Monday for the state's third-ever fiscal session. It's the third slimmed-down session focusing on the state's budget under a constitutional amendment voters approved in 2008 requiring the Legislature to meet and budget annually.

The top agenda item will be reauthorizing the state's private option program to use federal Medicaid funds to purchase private insurance for thousands of low-income residents. The program was approved last year as an alternative to expanding Medicaid under the health law. The program's future is in doubt after losing two key votes in the Senate. 

Two Arkansas legislators say they want to shield businesses from federal penalties if their operations don't fully comply with the nation's health care law.

House Majority Leader Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, introduced a bill Monday that would grant a state tax credit to businesses that don't comply with certain requirements under the Affordable Care Act. Republican Sen. Bart Hester of Cave Springs co-sponsored the measure.  

Business groups say if the "private-option" doesn't continue, some companies will be forced to pay federal penalties for failing to provide insurance. Under Westerman's bill, the state would grant a tax credit to businesses to cover federal penalties.

Meanwhile, a Republican lawmaker is proposing that Arkansas delay its implementation of a set of uniform benchmarks for reading, writing and mathematics that have been fully adopted in most states.

Sen. Gary Stubblefield, a Republican from Branch, filed legislation Monday that would put a moratorium on the implementation of the Common Core standards until January 1, 2017. The proposal would bar the state and local school districts from spending any public money on Common Core's implementation.

The Arkansas Board of Education voted in 2010 to implement Common Core. The standards, however, have drawn criticism from Republicans in other states that are reconsidering the benchmarks.

Stubblefield's measure would require a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate to be introduced since it's a non-budget bill filed during a fiscal session.