The Arkansas House of Representatives voted 76-13-11 to fund the part of the budget that includes Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s Arkansas Works program, sending the measure to the governor’s desk, where he will sign it with a line-item veto everyone knows is coming.
SB121 will fund the $8.4 billion Department of Human Services Division of Medical Services appropriation, which includes $1.7 billion for Arkansas Works.
Arkansas Works is Hutchinson’s version of the private option, the program created in 2013 that 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 margin that is required to fund all state appropriations, falling five votes short in the House and two in the Senate. The votes were needed to fund the Division of Medical Services, which also funds nursing homes and other Medicaid services.
Finding those five votes was not expected to be a problem in the House, but two senators could not be persuaded to fund the division unless Arkansas Works was removed. So the Hutchinson administration and state legislators created a strategy to amend the bill so that Arkansas Works ends at the end of this year, instead of in 2021 as originally stated in the bill. The private option also would have ended at the end of this year under state law. Once that measure passed both the House and Senate, Hutchinson would use his line-item veto to veto only that amendment, and 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. At first, some Democrats resisted because it meant they were voting against a program they support. But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle eventually agreed on the strategy.
The Senate passed the appropriation with the amendment Wednesday, 27-2. Two of the Senate holdouts, Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, and Sen. Blake Johnson, R-Corning, voted for it.
Among those speaking in the House against the amendment was the father of the amendment’s sponsor. Rep. Kim Hendren, R-Gravette, said he would vote against the bill unless his vote was needed for passage. He said he supported Arkansas Works but did not like the way it was being passed. He read an email he had written his son, Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, about his struggles with the way the process was unfolding. “Is it right to do wrong to do right?” he had written his son.
Rep. Nate Bell, I-Mena, said he had been leaning toward voting yes for the appropriation on its merits and said the opponents had put the governor in a difficult position. However, he said the three-fourths requirement exists to ensure the minority is respected and that this process violates the separation of powers principle. He said this kind of process threatens to make the state a one branch system.
Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Springdale, said the state is taking a step on the path of becoming “a welfare state” that was headed toward more federal control.
Rep. Laurie Rushing, R-Hot Springs, an Arkansas Works opponent who had announced she would not vote to block funding, said opponents had accomplished their mission of removing funding for Arkansas Works.
Rep. Kim, Hammer, R-Benton, said he was torn emotionally because of what is happening at the federal level, but was doing what was best for the state.