Down-Ballot Election Results and the Precarious Private Option

May 21, 2014

Former State Rep. John Burris (R-Harrison)
Credit Nathan Vandiver / KUAR

The results of five down-ballot state legislative races in Arkansas's Republican primary Tuesday may have serious implications for the private option, which requires an annual re-authorization vote. Arkansas’s modified Medicaid expansion plan, providing insurance to over 150,000 low-income residents, narrowly passed earlier this year.

Jay Barth, a political scientist at Hendrix College, noted the Republican crafted program has been contentious among Republican primary voters skeptical the program is ushering in an unwanted modification of the Affordable Care Act. 

“The most important of these is in the race up in north-central Arkansas between John Burris and his anti-private option opponent Mr. Flippo is going to a run-off. I think that’s an important race because not only does it mean a potential vote shift on the private option but I think it’s of symbolic importance because of John Burris’s role in helping to create this bipartisan approach in the first place. I think that’s a crucially important race,” said Barth.

Burris, a former state Representative from Harrison seeking to fill a state Senate seat vacated by Johnny Key who left to pursue lobbying with the University of Arkansas, received 43 percent of the vote.  His opponent in the run-off Scott Flippo garnered 42 percent of the vote. A third candidate, Mountain Home Mayor and private option supporter David Osmon received 16 percent of the vote.

Burris is one of three Republican proponents of the private option vying for a state senate seat against private option opponents. Bill Sample (Hot Springs) held on to his seat while Bruce Holland (Greenwood) lost to a vocal opponent of the program. The Senate had no votes to spare during its last vote in February.

The House had one to spare this year and private option supporter Sue Scott of Rogers held onto her seat against an opponent of the plan Dane Zimmerman.

Barth said the importance of just a few seats in the state legislature is something relatively new in Arkansas politics.

“Well, it is pretty exceptional. It’s rare that we have this kind of issue which has stayed so big for so many years and where every vote has really mattered. This is a pretty exceptional case. I think it is going to be probably increasingly common in a more polarized legislature and where the rules of the game really allow a minority to really control the process because of the 75 percent requirement in both houses for expenditures of this sort,” said Barth.

Barth noted it may be easier to sway votes toward keeping the program as the health care reform continues to climb toward a projected enrollment total of nearly 250,000 people. The legislature will take up the health care reform again when it reconvenes next January.