Senator Changes Position On Private Option, Could Be Enough For Passage

Feb 18, 2014

A slice of drama was cut from the state capitol on Tuesday as a state senator previously opposed to the private option said she would now vote to fund it.

State Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock) got something in return, however. English, a long-time advocate for restructuring workforce education and training in Arkansas, said she has received support from fellow lawmakers and Gov. Mike Beebe to fundamentally alter programs tied to workforce investment.

“Yes, I am switching,” English tells Talk Business. “And I have the undying support of Governor and the cabinet to make something happen [in jobs training], to make changes. There isn’t a single cabinet person who isn’t on board with this.”

John Brummett, political columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, first reported English’s switched vote in his Tuesday column.

English’s vote now gives the Arkansas State Senate the super-majority of 27 votes needed for passage of the private option, the state’s innovative alternative to straight Medicaid expansion crafted last year by Republican lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe.

English, a former director of the state’s Workforce Investment Board at the Department of Workforce Services and a one-time project manager at the Arkansas Economic Development Commission said altering workforce training and providing health insurance for working Arkansans are connected.

“My thing is if we don’t do it now, when are we going to do it?” said English. “We’ve got to get to the system where we turn the whole thing upside down and we provide a really good workforce system here that people can access with the kind of skills so that we don’t have to have everybody on food stamps, we don’t have to have everybody in the private option.”

The changes that English has advocated – and that key legislators and administration officials have agreed to – include: $15 million in existing DWS and two-year college funding tied to jobs training that will be administered by AEDC to meet existing industry needs; A coordinated effort by state agencies and private industries to identify 30,000 potentially unfilled Arkansas jobs; An assessment of the skills needed to fill those jobs; A reallocation of two-year school resources to put infrastructure and money in key areas of the state where job vacancies exist.

By the 2015 legislative session, the initiative will seek a top-to-bottom review of all job training programs at two-year colleges statewide and a possible realignment of nearly $24 million in workforce training money.

English said her focus for the revamped workforce education initiatives are about helping the whole state, not her legislative district. “It’s about the state, it’s not just about my district,” English said.

Later Tuesday afternoon, the Arkansas House will consider a bill that includes funding for the private option, but also cuts state advertising to promote the program.

House Speaker Davy Carter (R-Cabot) said he is confident that the votes exist in the House and now the Senate to pass the measure, but he was cautious on the timing of the possible passage.

“Whether or not it’s specifically today, I am 100% confident that the bill will pass both chambers,” Carter tells Talk Business.

The House will need 75 of its 100 members to support the funding in order to pass. Arkansas state law requires a supermajority of 75% of both chambers of the General Assembly to approve budget bills.