Arkansas Works Moves Forward

Credit Ron Breeding / KUAR News

An amendment that would change the law creating Arkansas Works so that it would end at the end of this year, rather than the end of 2021, passed the Joint Budget Committee, 41-11, Tuesday.

The amendment by Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, ends the program this year, but Gov. Asa Hutchinson plans to execute a line-item veto of that part of the budget if it passes the House and Senate. The measure would not generate enough support to be overridden and therefore would become law.

Arkansas Works would continue the private option, the government program that uses federal Medicaid dollars to purchase private health insurance for adults with incomes up to 138% of the federal poverty level. It was created in response to the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. As of the end of January, 267,590 Arkansans were eligible for coverage.

It received the necessary majority vote in a recent special session. However, it did not achieve a three-fourths vote in either the House or Senate. All funding bills must be passed with a three-fourths vote. Arkansas Works is funded as part of the Department of Human Services Division of Medical Services, which also funds nursing homes and other services.

The 10 senators who voted against Arkansas Works had indicated they would not vote to fund the division if it includes that funding. Two of those 10 voted for the amendment Tuesday: Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View; and Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs.

The Joint Budget Committee vote put Arkansas Works on a path to being funded.

Sen. Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers, a consistent opponent whose son is Arkansas’ Surgeon General and a supporter of Arkansas Works, said after the meeting, “This is just the way we do things, and to me the majority won, and I’ll just accept that. … I do think it’s over.”

Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, the Senate president pro tempore, said the issue would be discussed on the Senate floor Wednesday, “and I feel good about the chances at this point.” He said the effort to change two of the “no” votes to a “yes” ended with this amendment.

Under the Arkansas Constitution, the general appropriations part of the budget, which funds expenses such as legislators’ reimbursements, must be funded first, and House Democrats had refused to fund it until the Division of Medical Services was funded. Rep. Michael John Gray, D-Augusta, the House minority leader, said Democrats would lift their opposition to that funding. Sixteen of the Joint Budget Committee’s 17 Democrats voted yes. Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, voted present.

“We feel like it’s moving forward, and that’s all we asked for,” he said.

A previous effort failed Thursday when another Hendren amendment failed to get out of committee, 22-22, with all but one Democrat voting no. That amendment would have ended funding for the program rather than changing the program’s end date. Gray said Democrats were more comfortable changing the end date than they were changing funding.

“There’s still some real mixed feelings about it, but we really are going to take the governor’s leadership here, and if the governor feels like this is the only way to get this done, then we respect that, and we’re going to move forward,” he said.

Hendren and Marty Garrity, director of the Bureau of Legislative Research, said the new amendment involves no funding but instead involves a policy change, which may lessen the possibility that the courts would rule against it.

Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, an Arkansas Works opponent and attorney, earlier said the original line-item veto proposal amounts to an unconstitutional usurpation of the Legislature’s spending powers. He said a supermajority is required for funding, and the line-item veto would lose a court challenge that surely would follow.

“I think that there are ways to get these kinds of things done, but this veto game is not the way to do it,” he said in a press conference.

Hendren said he expects a legal challenge. “If you … fail to file any legislation because somebody threatens to sue, then we’re not going to have very many bills. … Smart attorneys that have looked at this said this is a better path and will make it more resistant to legal challenge,” he said.

In other business, Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, withdrew an amendment that would have directed the Department of Human Services to seek a waiver from the federal Department of Health and Human Services ensuring that no Medicaid funding, including Arkansas Works, would be used to pay for emergency contraception medicine such as the so-called “morning after pills.” Rapert and others consider those pills to be abortifacients.

Rapert withdrew the amendment after receiving a letter Tuesday from the governor stating he would seek such a waiver from providing those services. The governor’s support meant there was no need for the amendment, Rapert said.