Governor, lawmakers hint at multiple special sessions to address healthcare, highways, prison reform

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 124 views 

At separate events during the annual meeting of Arkansas Farm Bureau in Little Rock, Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) and the state’s top lawmakers on Thursday raised the possibility of multiple special legislative sessions in 2016 to tackle how Arkansas will fund pressing needs for healthcare, highway funding and prison reform.

Farm Bureau organizers said more than 1,000 members of the state’s farming lobby were in Little Rock to attend the three-day annual event at the downtown Statehouse Convention Center where the governor and state lawmakers shared their views on a number of issues.

The governor spoke Thursday afternoon (Dec. 3) to a standing-room only crowd of Farm Bureau members from across the state at the organization’s 81st annual convention. Earlier in the day, House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, and Senate President Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, along with Rep. Dan Douglass, R-Bentonville, Sen. Ron Caldwell. R-Wynne, and Sen. Bruce Maloch, D-Magnolia, appeared together during a panel discussion to talk about the fiscal session that will convene in April.

During a 45-minute discussion to talk about budget priorities that lawmakers will take up during the 30-day fiscal session on April 13 in Little Rock, Gillam and Dismang expressed hope the legislature can get ahead of some of the “big budgetary issues” before lawmakers convene next Spring.

“It is very exciting times right now, and we have set in motion several working groups and task forces before the (budget) session to solve some of the complex problems we are facing that historically we have kind of hit around the edges on,” said Speaker Gillam.

Dismang, a White County classmate of Gillam, said he hopes the fiscal session will be set aside to focus mainly on budget issues, not non-budgetary policy issues.

“We hope not to tackle too many policy issues during the (session), but in reality it is likely we will have some special sessions regarding some of the outstanding issues, “ he said.

The Senate lawmaker said he expects the Health Reform Legislative Task Force to meet before Christmas to present preliminary recommendations on the long-awaited proposed changes to the Medicaid private option, which he and the other lawmakers on the panel now refer to as “Arkansas Works.”

“You guys (at Farm Bureau) have been involved in that discussion on healthcare – that’s one that is ongoing and I wish I had more details on which way we are going to go,” Dismang said. “(But), that’s really going to shape what we are going to do as far as our budget, and that is going to impact what we do on future tax cuts, and really what we are going to do on funding across the board.”

Dismang added that the other major issue that lawmakers will tackle is finding a way to pay for the upkeep of state highways both short-term and long-term.

“It is very difficult for us to budget on the state level for our highway projects when we are not certain from year to year what is going to happen as far as the federal funding coming back to the state,” he said. “That has created a necessity for us to make sure we’ve got more ‘skin in the game.’”

The other major issue lawmakers must find answers for is criminal justice and prison reform, the Senate leader said.

“We’ve got three fairly big issues that are going to be outside that normal budgeting process, and it is going to be contentious,” Dismang said.

Joining Dismang and Gillam in the discussion, the other lawmakers on the panel also reiterated the difficult job lawmakers will have in funding a number of budget priorities without raising taxes, handing out more exemptions or cutting state services. Douglas, a former local Farm Bureau president and member of the Governor’s Working Group on Highway Funding, expressed concern about how the state will be able to raise enough revenue to pay for maintenance of Arkansas highways.

“We got a problem,” Douglas told the audience. “We’ve thrown everything on the table – every idea that anybody could come up with and the kitchen sink.”

The Bentonville lawmaker said the highway task force is close to providing Gov. Hutchinson with a list of “revenue-neutral” recommendations to meet the short-term goal of raising an additional $110 million for highways, with a five-year goal of $250 million and a 10-year goal of $400 million.

“We are working on it, and we will have an answer soon that I think will help everybody out,” said the House Agriculture committee chair.

Later during the panel discussion, the lawmakers answered a number of tough questions from Farm Bureau members who told the panel the state’s agriculture and crop farming sector was in the middle of an economic downturn. Others told the legislators they needed to do more in the way of tax relief and funding for programs aimed at helping rural communities.

In the afternoon session, Gov. Hutchinson found a friendlier crowd when he spoke to the entire Farm Bureau membership about his economic agenda aimed at promoting the state’s ailing farming and agriculture sector.

“In Arkansas, farming is not just our largest industry, it is truly who we are,” he said.

In his 20-minute speech, Hutchinson talked mostly about his recent trips to communist-led Cuba and China. He said he believes the international trips will bear fruit for Arkansas in the future, especially for the farming, forestry and agriculture sector. Afterward, Hutchinson spoke with reporters and also touched on the subject of possible multiple special sessions to address healthcare, highway funding and prison reform.

“In terms of timing of the (special) session, that call will be made right after the first of the year,” Hutchinson said. “I want to make sure we have the legislative task force do their work before the next meeting in December, and I want to talk with the legislative leadership and we will make some decisions after the first of the year on any sessions.”

When asked about the possibility of three special sessions to tackle Arkansas Works, highway and prison funding, Hutchinson laughed and said, “I think we have to wait and see.”