story by Roby Brock, a TCW content partner and owner of Talk Business
Editor's note: Updated at the end of story with the House vote on the private option funding legislation.
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. However, the drama will continue after the House on Tuesday afternoon could not muster the 75 votes needed to approve private option funding.
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 told Talk Business during a Tuesday morning (Feb. 18) interview. “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 supermajority 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 (DWS) and a one-time project manager at the Arkansas Economic Development Commission (AEDC), 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.
Following are other possible aspects of the “Arkansas Works Fast Track” initiative that the Governor, English and other legislators may propose.
• $16 million into ADEC Industry Training.
• College/Career Readiness — $9.6 million.
• Creation of a Fast Track Working Group — Workforce Cabinet, Business Leaders/Chamber and Legislature.
• Department of Higher Ed — Evaluate existing programs and identify shortage areas and programs. Evaluate existing Workforce 2000 programs and make recommendations for addressing state needs.
• On-going Business Advisory Council — Whose doing what, now and what’s good, what’s bad, and what’s missing.
• Legislature/Workforce Cabinet to present a package in 2015 session to address ongoing funding for workforce education/training: Workforce 2000 funding, Create Rebate, 2-year college funding formula, Ongoing funding for Career Pathways, College and Career Coaches and Adult Education.
• Department of Education and Career Education–Will begin the development of creating a tiered system of high school diplomas, with special emphasis for 16-20-year olds lacking a path under current constructs.
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.
The Arkansas House is expected to consider Tuesday afternoon 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.
It was not today.
The Arkansas House of Representatives voted on the funding bill – HB 1150 – that included the private option on Tuesday afternoon. The House failed to pass the measure by a 70-27 vote.
Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, the House Majority Leader and a GOP candidate for the Fourth Congressional District, spoke against the bill and the private option funding.
“Is Arkansas going to be an enabler of Obamacare?” Westerman said. “There is no doubt in my mind that President Obama and the Obama administration is watching today so we can be their enablers.”
Westerman added, “Let’s make the courageous choice. … Let’s say no.”
Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison, the former House Majority Leader and the political director for Republican U.S. Senate hopeful U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, spoke for the measure.
“I would simply say let’s keep it as simple as possible,” said Burris. “The appropriation we have before is has a lot of what we can agree on. It accomplishes a policy that I believe has consensus.”
Other members speaking against the funding included Rep. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, a candidate for the State Senate, and Rep. Charlotte Douglas, R-Alma. Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena, who drafted the amendments to the funding bill that included the moratorium on state outreach efforts, spoke for the bill in its present form, but he was an opponent of the original measure. Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville, also spoke for the bill. House leaders are expected to bring the measure up for consideration again.
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.
House Speaker Davy Carter (R-Cabot) said in a post-vote press conference that the private option funding bill was “non-negotiable.” He said, “We’re going to vote every day – for the next 25 days if that’s what it takes – until we pass the bill.”
Carter added that plenty of time had been allowed for members to contribute changes to the bill, but members who are opposed have not offered viable alternatives to the bill.