Gov. Asa Hutchinson is confident he will gain enough support to use a line-item veto strategy to fund his Arkansas Works program.
Hutchinson spoke to reporters in his office on Friday, the day after that strategy did not at first achieve its desired results.
On Thursday, the full Senate failed to achieve a required three-fourths majority to fund the Department of Human Services’ Medical Services Division. The effort fell two votes short, 25-10.
That division administers Hutchinson’s Arkansas Works, which would continue the private option, the government program that uses federal Medicaid dollars to purchase private health insurance for adults with incomes up to 138% of the federal poverty level. 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.
As part of the strategy, after the bill failed in the Senate, supporters tried to attach an amendment in Joint Budget Committee that would fund the entire division without funding Arkansas Works. The plan was for Hutchinson to execute a line-item veto of that part of the bill, and then the Legislature would fail to override the veto. But that effort failed, 22-22. All but one Democrat voted against the plan.
The idea is to allow opponents to continue to vote against Arkansas Works but to ultimately fund it and the rest of the Medical Services Division using the veto. The division includes all Medicaid programs, including those serving nursing homes, foster children and the developmentally disabled.
Hutchinson said he would continue to pursue that strategy, which requires the support of two of the 10 Republican opponents as well as all the legislators who originally voted for Arkansas Works.
“Right now I’ve got what I need on the Republican side,” he said.
One of the 10 senators, who asked not to be named, said Thursday that three of the 10 opponents were agreeable to the plan, with more likely by Tuesday, when the Legislature next meets in session.
Hutchinson said the strategy had occurred to him, and possibly to others, some time ago. However, he did not want to diminish another strategy of simply convincing two of the opponents to vote to fund the division. With that latter strategy, he said, “I’ve not negotiated away votes. I have not offered programs, money, or anything.”
The Joint Budget Committee effort failed mostly from lack of support from Democrats. Hutchinson said he has talked to Democrats, who wanted time over the weekend to think about it.
He believes a three-fourths majority eventually can agree to the idea. He said it “allows everyone to vote their conscience and to accomplish a result, and whenever you can follow our Constitution in Arkansas and achieve a result utilizing the mechanisms of government that 70% of the Legislature, the majority of both parties support, to me that’s a good outcome.”
Hutchinson said he is confident that the line-item veto strategy is legal after studying the history of the tool in Arkansas and conferring with legal counsel and with the Bureau of Legislative Research. He said a lawsuit is more likely coming from the other side if lawmakers don’t fund the Medical Services Division, which administers Medicaid, a federally funded program.
“This path is logical,” he said. “It is something that can be done very quickly with the cooperation of both parties and without violating conscience. But I don’t want to portray that all of our eggs are in this basket. This is really a legislative decision. They might come back and say we don’t want to do this, and then we go back to our continued strategy to get the three-fourths vote, but at this point, there seems to be a growing recognition that this is appropriate, it accomplishes the objective, and that people are on board with making this work.”
Asked if there is a “Plan C,” he said, “There’s probably legislators out there that are developing Plan C’s. I’ve got two dual strategies that I’ve maintained that I’ll continue to work.”
Hutchinson said he has been transparent with the strategy with both Republicans and Democrats, explaining, “We’re going to have a lot of other issues in this legislative session we’ve got to deal with, and I want to have a foundation of transparency, and not trickery. That’s not the objective here.”
The private option has been controversial since it was created in 2013. It barely was reauthorized in 2014, and it was reauthorized in 2015 after Hutchinson promised to end it by the end of the 2016 while overall Medicaid reform was considered.
He believes more clarity will be attained after this year’s presidential election. Either a Republican will win and perhaps make changes to the Affordable Care Act, and Arkansas will respond to that. Or a Democrat will win, in which case the Affordable Care Act’s position will be solidified.
“The election will determine and will make it a smoother ride in Arkansas as to what direction to go,” he said.