Bill Halter, Mike Ross Trade Jabs Over Health Care

by Andrew DeMillo, The Associated Press  on Friday, May. 3, 2013 4:49 pm  

LITTLE ROCK - Bill Halter on Friday criticized Democratic rival Mike Ross and the Republican candidates for Arkansas governor for opposing the federal health care law, saying their stances would have prevented the state from providing insurance to thousands of low-income residents.

Ross, meanwhile, questioned how Halter planned to fund an expanded college scholarship program without cutting state services or raising taxes.

The two Democratic candidates for the state's top office traded indirect jabs during separate appearances before the Delta Grassroots Caucus, focusing more direct criticism on one another in comments later with reporters.

Halter, a former lieutenant governor, cast himself among the candidates as the strongest and earliest supporter of a plan to expand health coverage to thousands of workers in the state under the federal health care law. Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, last month signed into law a plan to use federal Medicaid money to purchase private insurance for 250,000 low-income residents. Beebe and Republican backers of the plan touted the "private option" as an alternative to expanding Medicaid under the federal health overhaul.

"If they had had their way, we wouldn't have had this option at all," Halter said.

Halter afterward cited Ross' vote against the federal health care law in Congress, as well as his vote to repeal the law. Former Congressman Asa Hutchinson and businessman Curtis Coleman are both seeking the Republican nomination and have opposed the federal health overhaul.

Hutchinson said Thursday night that he would have signed the private option into law but would have wanted the issue addressed in a special session, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and Talk Business reported. Coleman has opposed the private option and urged lawmakers to reject it.

Ross defended his vote against the federal health overhaul, noting that Beebe has said he would have voted against the law if he had been in Congress. Ross has said he supports the private option plan.

"I've always said there were good parts and bad parts of the health care reform. I've always said the Medicaid expansion was a good part," Ross told reporters.

During his speech to the group at the Clinton Presidential Library in downtown Little Rock, Ross said he was skeptical about how Halter planned to pay for a proposal that would allow high school graduates who maintain a 2.5 GPA to attend most of the state's colleges and universities tuition-free.

The program would expand the scholarships currently funded by the lottery that Halter advocated. Halter has said the program would cost the state an additional $50 million to $75 million a year. Additional money would come from lottery revenues, federal aid programs such as Pell Grants and private donations, Halter said.

"We're not like Washington. We can't spend more than we take in ... I have yet to hear him explain how he's going to pay for that," Ross said.

Halter earlier told the group that he believed the scholarships could be funded through the state's normal revenue growth. He also told reporters he thought it was still possible to enact the program despite lawmakers this year approving a tax cut package that'll eventually cost the state more than $140 million a year.

"It's a $5 billion general revenue budget, it is growing with the economy," Halter said. "There are resources there, but ultimately budgets are always about choices and what I'm saying is the Arkansas Promise is one of the highest return investments we can make and I'm going to push for it."

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