Gun rights and government healthcare were the highlights of a legislative forum held Saturday morning (Jan. 26) in Bentonville, with Sen. Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers, discussing her concerns with a proposed expansion of Medicaid in Arkansas.
Bledsoe’s suggestion that there are “many not so good things” about expanding Medicaid is important considering she is chair of the Senate’s Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee.
Prior to hearing from the eight Arkansas legislators gathered at the forum, U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, noted the “scale and difficulty” involved in serving as a legislator, and thanked them for their willingness to serve. He also issued a challenge to the legislators.
“Don’t allow your delegation to become so politically divided” as is Congress, Womack said, adding that addressing the nation’s issues has become a “complicated mess.”
Legislators attending the forum were Bledsoe, Rep. Duncan Baird, R-Lowell; Rep. Les Carnine, R-Rogers; Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville; Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette; Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs; Rep. Debra Hobbs, R-Rogers; and Rep. Sue Scott, R-Rogers.
The forum was held at the NorthWest Arkansas Community College, and was sponsored by the college, AT&T, the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce/Associated Industries of Arkansas, Liberty Bank, the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport and Source Gas. It was conducted as a joint effort by the Rogers-Lowell Chamber of Commerce and the Bentonville-Bella Vista Chamber of Commerce.
When the question of Medicaid funding was raised, Bledsoe first addressed the question by noting that the federal health care law is the law of the land and has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. However, she said states were given the opportunity through the Court ruling to determine a future on Medicaid funding.
Bledsoe said the media in Arkansas only talks about the positives of expanding and rarely addresses the “many not so good things” about adding an estimated 250,000 more Arkansans to the Medicaid rolls using federal dollars. There are now about 750,000 Arkansans receiving some form of Medicaid support, according to Bledsoe, with 66% of Arkansas births and 75% of nursing home costs in Arkansas paid for with Medicaid dollars.
The downside of expanding Medicaid is that proposed savings may not work out. Also, the federal government could change its mind on funding, leaving states with the tab of an expanded program, Bledsoe explained.
“Can we take them off” the Medicaid system if the expansion proves to be a financial drain?, Bledsoe said of one uncertainty. “How do you take 250,000 Arkansans and say, ‘Sorry, you lose.’?”
She said at least 10 states have decided to not expand the program, and rhetorically asked if expansion is such a good deal, why are other states choosing to opt out?
Bledsoe also said the estimated Medicaid funding shortfall, which has ranged as high as $300 million in the last two years, is a separate issue from Medicaid expansion. The projected Medicaid deficit is one of the top issues of the 2013 General Assembly. Legislators have indicated they’re willing to go further in tapping surplus funds and growth revenue to shore up Medicaid funding, particularly to reverse proposed nursing home cuts.
CONCEALED GUN CARRY EXPANSION
The group was asked about expanding the right for those with a concealed weapons permit to carry guns into churches and on a university campus. They all support expanding the carry right to a church, but said a proposed bill filed in the Senate (SB 71) allows each church to decide on allowing guns. Bledsoe, Hendren and Hester are co-sponsors of SB 71.
Hobbs supports broader carry of guns by concealed weapons permit holders because “‘no guns’ signs don’t work” in keeping out anyone determined to commit a crime. However, she said the language should be “permissive” in allowing a church or university the ability to decide the gun policy they will adopt.
Carnine, who supports broader carry laws, said he hopes his church does not allow concealed weapons permit holders to carry guns into the building.
Dotson said his constituents have been vocal in asking the Legislature to “reaffirm second amendment rights. … That’s the main thing I’ve gotten emails on in the last week.”
Rep. Denny Altes, R-Fort Smith, has filed a bill (HB 1035) that would allow “trained and licensed staff” to carry a concealed handgun on a university or community college campus.
• Tax policy
Hester, a member of the Senate Revenue and Tax committee, said his focus is on tax reductions. He said committee chair Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, is working with Gov. Mike Beebe on tax changes, and they hope to reach a consensus. Hester said he hopes the state can begin to reduce the individual income tax rate, and change corporate tax rates so that the state is more competitive.
• Wage law change
Benton County Judge Bob Clinard asked the legislators to support legislation to end Arkansas’ prevailing wage law. The law sets hourly pay rates for certain public works projects in which the value of labor and materials exceed $75,000. The law, according to Clinard, costs state and local governments tens of millions of dollars a year.
Hendren told Clinard the political makeup of the Legislature may allow for a change. For the first time in more than 138 years, Republicans have a majority in both houses of the Arkansas Legislature. The GOP has a 21-14 advantage in the Senate and a 51-48 margin in the House.
• Higher education funding
Some in the audience wanted the legislators to address inequities in higher education funding, specifically citing what they say is too little funding from the state for NorthWest Arkansas Community College. Bledsoe said not only is it a struggle to find more money for NWACC, but there is a struggle in Little Rock to get “more recognition for the good work that’s going on here.”
Carnine said extra money does not exist, and it’s “very difficult to take from somebody else” to increase funding at other schools.
• Teacher insurance premiums
Scott said she hopes the Legislature will address the rising insurance premiums deducted from the paychecks of Arkansas public school employees. She said the deductions are considerably higher than other state employees. But Hendren said a solution is not easy because the individual school districts have the authority to make decision on whether to use money to boost salaries or to pay more on insurance premiums.
“It’s a complicated question,” Hendren said, adding that he isn’t sure the solution is having state government tell school districts how to allocate between pay and benefits.