2013 Arkansas Legislative Session Wasn't for the Base (AP Analysis)

by Andrew DeMillo, The Associated Press  on Sunday, Apr. 28, 2013 6:03 pm  

LITTLE ROCK - This wasn't a session for the base of either party.

The left suffered its biggest defeat in decades on abortion rights as Arkansas lawmakers enacted some of the nation's strictest bans, but also saw the passage of expanded health care for thousands of low-income workers. Republicans pushed through more than $140 million in tax cuts, but faced grumbling from many on the right for not finding ways to cut government spending or to trim taxes sooner.

The legislative session that wrapped up last week handed Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe and the new Republican majority victories they could point to on issues ranging from health care to tax cuts. But there were just as many setbacks that liberal and conservative activists are unlikely to forgive either party for in the near future.

By the end of the 100-day session Beebe and legislative leaders praised the "private option" plan for expanding health insurance in the state as a sign of bipartisan cooperation on a divisive issue. But they also acknowledged that neither side got everything they hoped for on dozens of other issues.

"Did I get everything I wanted? Of course not," Beebe said after signing into law the "private option" touted as an alternative to the Medicaid expansion called for under the federal health care law. "There were bills that were passed that I vetoed that I thought should not have been passed, but that's the part of the process. Nobody gets their way all the time."

The private option plan to use federal Medicaid dollars to purchase private insurance for 250,000 low-income residents offered a rare dual victory for Beebe and some Republicans. For Beebe and other Democrats, it offered a chance to follow through on a promise to expand insurance and try to cut down on hospitals' uncompensated care costs.

For Republican backing the idea, the approach allowed them to push for changes they say will curb the cost of Medicaid and will help businesses avoid penalties under the federal health care law for not offering insurance.

The plan, which still must win federal approval, was one of the few areas of common ground in a session that began with a series of high-profile clashes over social issues such as abortion and gun rights. They included Beebe's vetoes of bills banning most abortions 12 weeks and 20 weeks into a pregnancy, which lawmakers moved quickly to override.

Democrats also suffered a setback on voter ID, with Republicans overriding Beebe's veto of a bill requiring voters to show photo identification before they could cast a ballot.

Not all Republicans were cheering with those victories. The private option vote exposed a deep divide among GOP members on how to move forward on a federal health care law that they've run against for the past two elections.

Republicans also complained that the $4.9 billion budget signed into law didn't do enough to slow government spending and that the tax cut package didn't go far enough in cutting taxes sooner. They also saw the defeat of a measure to cap state spending growth, identified by House Republicans as a top priority.

Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, objected that lawmakers were only cutting $10.7 million in taxes in the coming year while divvying up part of the state's surplus for various one-time projects around the state.

"I support any tax cuts, but I think the decimal point should be more to the right," Hester said.

Republicans, however, point to the size of the tax cuts in later years as a sign that they'll be able to cap spending in the future. Beebe, meanwhile, can claim a win with the passage of his plan to eventually cut the grocery tax once the state's bond obligations or desegregation payments drop by $35 million over a six-month period.

Legislative leaders said they were taking complaints from the left and right as a sign of success for the session.

"It's probably like your business, when people you're writing about on both sides complain, you guys consider yourselves pretty close to on target," Senate President Pro Tem Michael Lamoureux told reporters last week. "When we're being attacked from the political right and the political left, I think we're probably down the Arkansas middle of the road."

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