Three votes likely to define Legislature’s 2014 fiscal session

by The City Wire staff ( 2 views 

The 2014 legislative fiscal session that begins Monday (Feb. 10) will be remembered for two words – Private Option – and three potential votes.

When Republican lawmakers, in concert with Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe, fashioned the novel health care plan for Arkansas, there was no doubt that it would stir controversy. The hard-fought votes to secure the funding’s passage was testament to that.

In short, the private option takes the Medicaid expansion money offered under the Affordable Care Act and allows Arkansas to steer that money into a private health insurance exchange, where four carriers have a variety of plans for citizens of all income levels.

The funding votes in the Joint Budget Committee and on the floor of the House and Senate were close in the regular session of 2013.

Get ready for a replay in 2014, but consider two major factors that have boosted momentum for opponents of the plan.

First, the botched roll-out of the federal health care law has given tremendous momentum to those who disagree with the program. Secondly, the timing of a new private option funding vote – which requires three-fourths of approval from both legislative chambers – will take place less than a month before filing period opens for political office in Arkansas.

With many Republicans fearing conservative challenges from their right flank in party primaries this Spring, the political repercussions of a new vote will be felt.

Some supportive lawmakers argue the vote will already be on their record so why change it; others contend they can defend a shift in their position. The private option, which has garnered national attention, only passed with two votes to spare in each chamber, so the margin for error is miniscule.

One State Senator, Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, says her support has altered, and the Senate’s newest member, John Cooper, R-Jonesboro, is an ardent opponent of the private option.

Gov. Mike Beebe (D) and House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, sat down recently for interviews on the topics and you can view their comments at the bottom of this post.

Beebe has been touring the state in recent months making the case that as much as $140 million in tax cuts approved during the 2013 regular session were only possible through projected savings tied to the private option.

Lawmakers don’t view it that way. Several key lawmakers, including Revenue and Tax chairmen Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, and Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville, have been outspoken that tax cuts can stay even if the private option funding renewal vote fails.

While the legislature will not likely vote on any tax reform measures in the 2014 fiscal session, they will be the topic of debate during the course of other budget decisions.

Another financial quagmire that will be the focus of legislative attention is following up on the state’s teacher insurance crisis.

Arkansas lawmakers convened for a special session in October 2013 to address an expected $53 million shortfall in the teacher insurance fund. They plugged $43 million from the state’s $169 million surplus into the fund to help close the gap. The remaining difference is to be largely made up by a 10% premium increase for teachers and other public school employees utilizing the insurance plan.

Major long-term reforms included a restructuring of the oversight board that reviews the insurance plans’ benefits. Lawmakers will reshape the board to have more representation from teachers and members with a background in employee and insurance benefits. Expect updates and scrutiny to these reforms as legislators are keeping a watchful eye on the issue.

Also, state prison officials took the extraordinary step during budget hearings to request money above the Governor’s recommendation to ease overcrowding at county jails and to study the feasibility of building another prison for the state’s growing inmate population.

Legislative support – particularly those tough on crime in the wake of last year’s parole shortcomings – will likely be there.

Finally, lawmakers and the Governor seem to be on the same page with avoiding a special election to fill the vacancy of Lt. Governor created by Mark Darr’s resignation.

Darr’s exit due to ethics violations presented a tricky challenge for the state’s constitution. The Lt. Governor’s post is the one office where the Governor can’t fill the vacancy by appointment, as Beebe did when Treasurer Martha Shoffner resigned.

Legislators will likely tweak language in the election code that allow the office to remain vacant since it is an election year and the office is up for grabs between a slate of candidates. The timing calendar for a special election would be tricky from a logistics perspective, and for voters it would add to confusion with the activity already expected on this year’s ballots.