The impending fiscal session of the Arkansas General Assembly begins this week down at the State Capitol. There looms great uncertainty to the tenor and attitude of this session with lawmakers who just a few months ago adjourned the longest regular session since the Great Depression.
This fiscal session could be short and sweet, if focused on the proposed $5.03 billion dollar budget proposed by Gov. Mike Beebe. That document includes noticeable increases for prisons, public schools and a cost-of-living adjustment for state employees.
However, the bile boiling in the stomachs of many Republicans continues to rise over the passage of Arkansas’ version of a “Private Option” of the use of federal Medicaid dollars for private health insurance for poor Arkansans. That boil threatens to derail this law and cast the proposed state budget into disarray.
Should the Private Option portion of the appropriation of the Department of Human Services Budget be defeated, there will be an $89 million hole in the state budget that must be plugged, possibly by recalling the plethora of tax cuts passed in the previous session.
Do not forget this one fact: Since the inception of the Arkansas Private Option, more than 102,173 Arkansans who never had health insurance – most probably who could never afford health insurance on their own – suddenly have insurance coverage, according to the state Department of Human Services.
And more are signing up each day.
Few lawmakers are talking about discontinuing this coverage – but defeat of the Arkansas Private Option will do just that. Plus blow an $89 million hole in the proposed state budget by Gov. Mike Beebe and you harm the state reimbursement for nursing home care, relief for state payments due to county jails and other state services.
If you are a state employee and expecting a modest one-percent cost-of-living-adjustment (COLA) and this budget gets busted by defeat of the Arkansas Private Option, forget receiving that small raise. If you are in a school district hoping on some state aid for your school district, that $65 million in the Beebe budget will not be there.
If you are a county Sheriff and are hoping the state can send you that $7 million in reimbursements to county jail lockups for housing state prisoners, expect pennies on the dollar you are owed.
And all of us can forget the $3 million to expand more prison beds for convicted felons.
Remember this: The bipartisan-constructed use of state Medicaid dollars for private health insurance was approved by the GOP-controlled Arkansas Legislature and Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe last session. It was approved by the state Senate and the state House by two-thirds majorities needed for its approval.
Does this mean that 102,173 Arkansans will be dealt a blow by the same legislature which gave them health coverage months ago? Democrats, especially state Rep. Warwick Sabin, D-Little Rock, has placed the hubbub over the Arkansas Private Option squarely on the Grand Old Party.
“(A)ll of the drama has taken place on the Republican side," he recently told the Arkansas Times.
Legislative observers squarely see the 48 Democrats in the House the remaining 13 state Senators, all firmly in favor of the Private Option. Democrats in both chambers, in a minority, may still have a way to block any appropriation without the Private Option included. They will also be the key arbiters in striking a balance on any tweaks or adjustments to the Private Option and its policy changes.
House Minority Leader Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, said the Democrats will be more vocal in this session than the previous session.
We have about 100,000 Arkansans out there that now have health insurance and are counting on it and I really don’t want to stand by quietly while people debate the possibility of taking that away," he told a central Arkansas news organization.
And Beebe, who has submitted his final balanced budget, a conservative budget the like of which he is legendary, doesn’t want to head back to the drawing board with a divided and angry legislature. Plus if these legislators should have learned one thing serving during the Beebe Administration’s tenure – they don’t want an angry and disappointed Mike Beebe (even as a lame duck governor) on their backsides over the Arkansas Private Option.
Good luck legislative guys and gals this next month. The issues and the outcome are focused on you. So don’t try to lay the blame or the outcome you create on a lame duck President’s policy in faraway Washington D.C.
The Republican controlled Arkansas House and Arkansas Senate approved the state’s Private Option, implemented the plan and it is up and running.
You don’t have to climb the trees to rake the leaves, so don’t try dismantling the state budget over something you solons did, but didn’t like, on giving health care to 102,173 poor and needy Arkansans.