Effort to override Arkansas Works veto fails, opponents may try again in 2017

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 128 views 

An attempt failed in the Senate Tuesday to override Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s line item veto of a section of a law that would have ended his Arkansas Works program this year.

Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, an Arkansas Works opponent, made the motion. No one spoke for or against it, including him. The motion failed on a voice vote, and no one asked for a roll call. SB121 will fund the $8.4 billion Department of Human Services Division of Medical Services appropriation, which includes $1.7 billion for Arkansas Works and also funds other programs, such as nursing homes.

Arkansas Works is Hutchinson’s version of the private option, which uses federal Medicaid dollars to purchase private health insurance for Arkansans with incomes up to 138% of the federal poverty level. As of the end of January, 267,590 Arkansans were eligible for coverage.

The controversial program was approved in a recent special session, 70-30 in the House and 25-10 in the Senate. It lacked the three-fourths majority that is required to fund all state appropriations, falling five votes short in the House and two in the Senate.

Two senators could not be persuaded to fund the division unless Arkansas Works was removed. So the Hutchinson administration and legislators created a strategy to amend the bill so that Arkansas Works would end at the end of this year, instead of in 2021 as originally stated in the bill. Once that measure passed both the House and Senate, Hutchinson used his line-item veto to veto only that amendment, knowing the Legislature would not have the majority needed to override it.

The idea was to let opponents of Arkansas Works continue to vote against the program while allowing funding to move forward.

Hutchinson’s line item veto included a letter explaining that the General Assembly had approved Arkansas Works by a wide margin and that the appropriations process is not the proper place to change policy. He wrote that non-appropriation bills can only be considered during a fiscal session after a two-thirds vote approval by both Houses.

Asked about the lack of effort on behalf of the override, Hester said, “We could have fought it out and had the same arguments that we played out just a few days ago in the Legislature, but we knew what the score was and the votes were in all likelihood. But I felt like it was the appropriate thing to do, at least ask, right? It’s been a long road through this argument, and that was kind of the appropriate finish to make sure we made the efforts.”

Hester said he had visited with many of the other “no” votes, and they agreed to make the effort. So the issue is settled – until 2017.

“I would be hard-pressed to find a government program, and certainly you will not find a Medicaid program, that overdelivered on our promises,” he said. “We will find that the enrollment’s higher than they’re going to say, and the cost is higher than they’re going to say. And so I think time is my friend because the facts will continue to come out that this thing is over budget and unaffordable, and I think we’ll be forced to revisit that each year.”