Arkansas Works approved after heated Senate debate, now faces House vote (Updated)

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 340 views 

Editor’s note: Story updated with changes and additions throughout.

One week after convening the fiscal session of the 90th General Assembly, the Arkansas Senate on Wednesday (April 20) approved an amended appropriations bill to fund Gov. Asa Hutchinson plan to expand his Arkansas Works program.

By a vote of 27 yeas, two nays and five presents, the Republican-leaning upper chamber gave Senate Bill 121 the necessary two-thirds approval for the legislation to now move to the governor. Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, was attending a funeral and was counted as “not voting,” thus allowing her vote to be accounted as a “no.”

The amended legislation is set for a Thursday vote in the Arkansas House.

If Arkansas Works becomes law, as is fully expected, it would continue the private option, the government program where the state uses federal Medicaid dollars to purchase private health insurance for adults with incomes up to 138% of the federal poverty level. The poverty level is $11,880 in a household size of one. It was created in response to the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. As of the end of January, 267,590 Arkansans were eligible for coverage.

Hutchinson, who was seen leaving the Senate chamber ahead of the vote, released the following statement after lawmakers adjourned.

“I am pleased with today’s vote in the Senate. This, of course, is just one step in the overall process, but I am confident that the bipartisan approach that achieved success in the senate will provide momentum for this strategy for funding Arkansas Works as it heads to the house floor tomorrow,” Hutchinson said.

Once the legislation reaches the governor’s desk, the popular Republican chief executive is expected to line-item veto an amendment to the controversial expansion of the state’s Medicaid program. That amendment, sponsored by Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, would change the law creating Arkansas Works so that it would end at the end of this year, rather than the end of 2021. It was passed on Tuesday by the Joint Budget Committee.

The measure is fully expected not to generate enough support to be overridden by the governor’s veto, and therefore will become law – which was a major point of contention on the Senate podium before Wednesday’s votes were cast.

Several opponents of the controversial legislation were not pleased with the process to get two-thirds approval from the Senate, calling the Hendren’s amendment a “scheme” that would erode voters confidence in the Arkansas legislature.

Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, angered many of his Senate colleagues when he gave an impassioned five-minute speech on the floor accusing supporters of the earlier “private option” version of Medicaid expansion and Arkansas Works of underhanded dealings.

”The private option was conspired in backrooms a few years ago,” Rice said. “And now Arkansas Works.”

Rice’s speech lead to 30-minutes of back and forth speeches on the Senate floor by supporters and opponents of Arkansas Works, ending with Hendren taking the floor to defend his amendment and Sen. Larry Teague, D-Nashville, asking the body not to cast personal aspersions.

“We are better served by being friendly to each other,” Teague said.

On April 8, Hutchinson signed his Arkansas Works bill into law after both the House and Senate voted to approve each other’s companion bills during a special session. The House approved Arkansas Works, 70-30, while the Senate approved it, 25-10. The next day, the senators also passed the companion bill by an identical 25-10 margin. House members passed the companion Senate bill, 68-27-1.

However, the process to fund the governor’s hallmark legislation was not as easy or as friendly as the earlier special session. Over the past week, all attempts to offer alternatives or halt expansion of the government program have been swept aside.

On Tuesday, Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, an opponent of Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s Arkansas Works program, proposed a last-minute compromise where beneficiaries would go on traditional Medicaid rather than receive private insurance coverage. Clark, backed by Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, and a handful of other Arkansas Works opponents, said he would vote for funding the Department of Human Services’ Division of Medical Services budget under certain conditions, including expanding Medicaid rather than purchasing private insurance.

Clark said the system amounts to corporate welfare for insurance companies and for medical providers, who are paid less under Medicaid than they are by private insurance. He said the state has been siphoning the federal dollars to pay for other state programs.

Clark, who spoke against the bill before the Senate vote on Wednesday, was one of five Republican senators to vote present. Rice and Sens. Linda Collins-Smith of Pocahontas, Scott Flippo of Bull Shoals, and Gary Stubblefield of Branch were the others. Sens Bryan King, R-Rogers, and Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers, voted “no.” Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, flipped her vote to a “yes” after originally refusing to vote on the first call.

Now the Senate bill will move to the lower chamber of the General Assembly on Thursday. The threshold for approval in the 100-member House is expected to be easier, according to several House members in attendance at the Senate chamber on Wednesday.

Under the Arkansas Constitution, the general appropriations part of the budget, which funds expenses such as legislators’ reimbursements, must be funded first, and House Democrats had refused to fund it until the Division of Medical Services was funded. Rep. Michael John Gray, D-Augusta, the House minority leader, said Democrats would lift their opposition to that funding.