Arkansas Senate Republicans on Tuesday elected by acclamation Sen. JIm Hendren, R-Gravette, as Senate majority leader and Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, as majority whip.
The 22-member caucus met last week to determine the process, gave members a week to select nominees, and when the nominations closed Monday night, elected the two senators electronically.
Hendren said Tuesday he and Hickey will start preparing for the upcoming session immediately. Unlike two years ago, Senate Republicans will enter the session confident of a majority. Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, has already been elected the incoming president pro tempore. Top issues will include tort and regulatory reform, economic competitiveness, the state lottery, and expanding broadband access for public schools.
“I have found that it is almost impossible to do a thorough job of developing complicated legislation in the midst of a session. It has to be done in advance,” Hendren said.
Hendren will lead a caucus deeply divided over the so-called Private Option, the state program that uses Medicaid dollars through the Affordable Care Act to buy private insurance for lower-income Arkansans. Hendren has been an opponent of the program, Hickey a supporter.
The Gallup organization released a poll Tuesday that found that Arkansas has seen the largest reduction in uninsured residents in the country. The rate dropped from 22.5% in 2013 to 12.4% in 2014. As of June 30, 176,691 Arkansans have been insured through the Private Option. Of that number, 19,508 were assigned to traditional Medicaid because they were judged to be medically frail.
Hendren said the news did not change his opinion that the program is financially unsustainable. However, he said opponents must consider the large number of Arkansans who now have health insurance because of it.
“We have this program, and I’m one who believes you’ve got to be fair with people,” he said. “So anything that’s done, we have to take into account the fact that we’ve got a lot of people in Arkansas who are playing by the rules and who are working hard, and to just yank that away from them without any consideration is not something that I think is the right thing to do. So we’re going to have to look at how we can find some middle ground, or find some sort of process that gets us to a program that’s more sustainable.”
Senate Republicans will try to craft a compromise or at least just take a vote and get past it, Hendren said. He said his goal will be to “not let that define us as a caucus.”
“We’re not going to let those differences and those different groups that we come from prevent us from being effective as a caucus,” he said. “We’re just not going to let that happen.”