Fiscal Legislative Session: Day Two Happenings

Feb 11, 2014

The House floor after State Representatives convened Tuesday afternoon.
Credit Chris Hickey / KUAR

The Arkansas Legislature convened for the second day of a month-long fiscal session Tuesday to consider state budgetary matters and other issues. Behind the scenes, lawmakers continue to plan possible changes to the state’s private option expansion of Medicaid in an effort to make reauthorizing funds for the program more palatable to many of the Legislature's conservative members. While House and Senate leaders were confident the program for low-income Arkansans can be reauthorized, House majority Leader Bruce Westerman told reporters that he didn't see that happening.

“From the conversations I've had I think there are votes there to not pass the appropriation when it first comes out. You know we'll have to work on some sort of compromise. I don't think the compromise will be how to make the private option better...but a compromise on how we end the private option—setting a date and a pathway to do a controlled wind down,” Westerman, a Republican, said.

Supporters continue to say that the program, which allows poor Arkansans to buy private health insurance with federal Medicaid money, will be reapproved, though under uncertain conditions.

House speaker Davy Carter, a Republican, said there may have to be numerous changes to the private option to garner the needed three-fourths support from both chambers.

“There are a hundred different ideas out there, so those type of things are getting discussed.... But I have seen nothing that is a fundamental change of the nuts and bolts of the private option,” said Carter.

Waiving a requirement to provide non-emergency transportation to participants, tweaking policies on possible Health Savings Accounts and addressing disparities in physician specialist reimbursements by insurance companies are all in the mix as potential changes.

Providers In Delta Region Speak Up On Private Option

Members of the Delta Grassroots Caucus released a report Tuesday, detailing how healthcare professionals in the Delta region of eastern Arkansas maintain broad support for the Private Option.

The Caucus, comprising political, business and social leaders in regions around the Mississippi river, cited Medical Center executives from Eastern Arkansas who said defunding the private option would have a severe financial impact on providers in the area.

Democratic State Representative Mark McElroy, who represents Desha County in Southeast Arkansas agreed with the report.

“In our area it's very rural and [there's] a lot of poverty...Unfortunately we have a lot of people who can't afford to pay for hospital visits and things. And [there's] a lot of uncompensated care. And if this private option fails now, I'm afraid it's going to devastate our rural hospitals,” he said.

Non-Fiscal Matters

On Tuesday The House Rules committee met to review a number of non-appropriations resolutions which require a two-thirds vote to be considered by the rest of the chamber. In the house, several resolutions filed at the start of the session were on the Rules Committee agenda. Few went up for consideration after members of the committee motioned to table most measures unrelated to fiscal matters and Chairwoman Stephanie Malone indicated the committee would not meet again during the session.

However, a nonfiscal measure sponsored by Bruce Westerman to lift the requirement of calling a special election to fill former Lt. Governor Mark Darr's seat advanced. That resolution would allow the seat to remain vacant until after a new Lt. Governor is elected in the November General Election. Darr resigned last month over ethics violations.

Some of the tabled proposals included one by Westerman to create a tax credit for business owners who face a penalty under the Affordable Care Act for not providing their employees with health coverage.

Republican Representative Kim Hammer put forward a measure intended to create a tax credit for individuals buying health plans on the federally-run insurance Marketplace. Hammer said his proposal would target those whose incomes are 139 to 400 percent of the Federal Poverty Level and have had to pay higher premiums for new health plans on the Marketplace.

Republican State Representative Nate Bell of Mena filed a proposal that calls for the legislature to kickstart the introduction of a new U.S. Constitutional Amendment to balance the federal budget. The proposal operates under Article Five of the U.S. Constitution, which allows state legislatures around the country to call for a convention to amend that document. That measure was not brought up in the Rules Committee and is unlikely to be revisited again.

Another proposed measure tabled in committee was one filed by Republican Representative Randy Alexander to establish a 3-year moratorium on implementation of Common Core educational standards for K through 12 students.

Alexander said that he was disappointed the committee did not take up his proposal. 

“There's a process for having an exception to [considering only fiscal matters] if there's enough interest in doing it....but the House and the Senate's not going to get a chance to vote on it. And I think that's wrong,” he said after the meeting. “I talked to a lot of people in the House and the Senate that are opposed to Common Core and wanted to support my amendment.”

Among those observing the House Rules Committee meeting were several members of the group Arkansas Against Common Core. Many said after the meeting adjourned that they were disappointed Alexander's proposal wasn't discussed by the committee.

Alexander says Common Core loosens restrictions on the collecting and sharing of student data. And while it establishes higher standards for Arkansas, he says Arkansas could have looked to other states that had better educational standards already in place. Supporters of the policy say it provides consistent standards to make students ready for college and the workplace.