No votes spared in winning Senate vote for Arkansas Works expansion

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 664 views 

The Arkansas Senate on Tuesday (March 6) approved a Department of Human Services appropriation bill for Arkansas Works healthcare expansion with no votes to spare, paving the way for the General Assembly to put the finishing touches on Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s $5.44 billion budget and close the 30-day fiscal session next week.

By a vote of 27-2, Senate Bill (SB) 30 was approved after longtime Arkansas Works opponent Sen. Alan Clark, R-Hot Springs, provided the deciding vote after an hour of floor debate. Arkansas Works is the state’s Medicaid health insurance program developed by lawmakers in 2013 as part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), otherwise known as Obamacare.

Immediately after the tight vote, Gov. Hutchinson congratulated the Senate for passage of the DHS’s Division of Medical Services appropriation bill in the two-year budget.

“I’m very grateful for the senators that were able to support Arkansas Works and the DHS appropriation,” Hutchinson said in a statement. “Obviously, the work requirement was a significant factor in showing the reform that we’re accomplishing, and I appreciate the Senate’s leadership in passing this on the first vote.”

The Senate took up the bill following key events on the previous day that smoothed the way for the bill to garner the necessary votes needed for passage. On Monday morning, Seema Verna, CMS administrator signed a long-awaited Medicaid waiver requiring work requirements for able-bodied Arkansans to receive health insurance and gave it to Gov. Hutchinson during an overflow press conference at the State Capitol.

Later in the day, Sen. Larry Teague, D-Nashville, convinced Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, to release a procedural hold on SB30 after the Northwest Arkansas Republican employed a parliamentary tactic that allows one or more JBC committee members to prevent a motion from reaching a full vote on either the House or Senate floor.

During Tuesday’s Senate debate, King again sought to employ another parliamentary tactic by forcing an immediate vote to table SB30, which if passed would have prevented the bill from coming back up again until the regular legislation session in 2019. In his appeal to the other 32 senators, King said SB30 should be “immediately postponed” until state government can get its “out-of-control spending” back in balance.

“We have been growing substantially. We are basically spending every dollar that comes in,” King said in his 15-minute speech at the Senate well. “We don’t know what is going to happen in this economy.”

After King’s failed bid to table SB30, the Senate spent another 50 minutes debating whether to vote for or against SB30. Sen. Clark, a vocal critic of Arkansas Works in the previous regular and fiscal sessions, told fellow senators he was wrestling with possibly casting the final vote necessary for passage of the key budget bill.

“I don’t think it is good for the state to have one side saying to the other side that DHS is going to shut down if we don’t pass this,” Clark said.

Sens. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, and Linda Collins-Smith, R-Pocahontas, however, spoke against SB30, saying the Legislature and the Hutchinson administration continues to expand Arkansas Works on the back of the “working man.”

“Somewhere along the line we have to change courses. There is something fundamentally wrong, in my view …, when we continue to pay people for not doing anything,” said Stubblefield. “Even the Bible says: ‘If a man doesn’t work, he shouldn’t eat.’”

Collins-Smith, in an emotional plea, told fellow senators she could not vote for SB30, saying there were some parts of the appropriation bill she liked but other portions she was dead set against. She said expanding Medicaid again in this fiscal session would add an additional $137 million to the fiscal 2019 budget.

“Tell me what’s changed. Because nothing has changed except an increase in the cost to the taxpayers of Arkansas … to the tune of $137 million dollars that the working poor is already going to have to work and pay for,” Collins-Smith said. “(This) is unsustainable. The working poor has to pay for someone else’s insurance, for someone else’s healthcare plan … for another ‘one-hundred-and-thirty-seven million dollars.’ My heart breaks.”

Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, also employed her Republican colleague’s “working man” theme. She countered that the state’s working class will be the beneficiaries of SB30. Elliott, in her upbeat floor speech, said approving SB30 was about “far more than Arkansas Works.” She said Arkansas lawmakers have been debating the systematic poverty that “haunts the state” since the beginning of statehood.

“We still act as if it is OK not to be better than this since we have been a state since 1836,” said Elliott, adding that Arkansas should strive to have the best education, healthcare, economy and infrastructure. “We don’t invest in anything that’s worthwhile. We just settle. Then we have our fights and then we point at one another. Leadership to me demands that we want Arkansas to be great.”

Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Bigelow, also spoke in support of the Senate legislation. He said Arkansas Works was the best outcome out of failed healthcare policy that Congress approved in 2010 with the passage of ACA.

Before the Senate moved to vote on the measure, Joint Budget Committee  (JBC) co-chairman, Sen. Teague soothed his fellow lawmakers before the difficult floor vote by saying there was no right or wrong vote.

“We can argue about the issues and we do all the time. This is about helping 300,000 people or so that need help,” he said.

After the first roll call, only 26 votes were tallied for SB30 as all 32 senators’ names were called. However, Sen. Clark, who didn’t vote during the first round, kept his promise and cast the final vote to win approval for the measure. King and Collins-Smith voted against the measure, while Sens. Stubblefield and Scott Flippo, R-Bull Shoals, did not cast votes on the measure.

Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, voted “present,” while Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, was presiding in place of Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, who was absent from the Senate proceedings. Now the bill will move to the House for consideration on Wednesday, where it is expected to have an easier pathway for approval.

Under legislative rules, 27 senators and 75 representatives must vote for all appropriations. In the 2017 regular session, DHS’ appropriation failed twice in the Senate and the House. It finally passed with the minimum 27 votes in the Senate, with seven not voting and King voting no. The House passed it 77-13 with 9 not voting and 1 voting present.

In this year’s fiscal session, the Senate was short three members after Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot, who voted for the appropriation last year, resigned to work for the Trump administration. Sen. Greg Standridge, R-Russellville, who was recorded as not voting, died after the session. Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, a supporter of Arkansas Works, resigned after pleading guilty to wire and bank fraud. Special elections to replace them will not occur until after the session ends.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, said he was pleased with how Senate members conducted themselves facing the most difficult vote of the 30-day session. The Senate also approved several other appropriation bills for the Education and Insurance Departments and several other key DHS divisions.

“It was thoughtful debate by everyone who came down to the well today,” Dismang said. “I appreciated the fact that people were willing to stick to the appropriation debate and not allow policy to creep into the discussion.”