The Fiscal Session, and Everything After (Blake Rutherford On Politics)

by Blake Rutherford  on Wednesday, Mar. 12, 2014 8:52 am  

Blake Rutherford

The 2014 fiscal session of the Arkansas General Assembly is coming to an end after a tense five weeks.

As expected, the session was dominated by the private option, an Arkansas-centric alternative to Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s sweeping health care legislation passed in 2010.

To try and put the matter to rest (for ten months at least), the passage of the private option is a very good thing. It is beneficial for business and for low-income Arkansans who can now participate in a program that allows them access to affordable health care. As Governor Mike Beebe said in his radio address last week, "Making available preventive medicine and regular checkups will stop illnesses from becoming chronic and halt certain conditions from occurring. This decreases health costs for everyone, particularly by reducing uncompensated care in our State."

But this hardly puts an end to any future fight over health care reform in Arkansas, which is the first of many lessons of the 2014 session.

Let’s review the key takeaways:

First, the private option remains in a perilous state. The bill to reauthorize private option funding achieved the two-thirds vote in both houses as required, but only narrowly. And state Rep. Kim Hammer, whose switch from "no" to "yes" was key to its passage in the House, was quoted by National Journal as saying, "For those who feel like I’ve betrayed you, we’ll be back next year. If the program doesn't work, I'll vote against it." 

With those words, Hammer aligned himself with fellow Republican Rep. Nate Bell, who also voted for the private option this session but wants to revisit it in next year’s general session.

"We have a program created in Arkansas that I would like to see go away," Bell said in an interview with Fox News Radio last week. "But given the fact that it’s just not possible to do that in one of our fiscal sessions. We had to be able to pass something."

Later in the interview, Bell added, "Right now, what I want us to do is hit the pause button. Let's hold where are. Let's continue the program that we have in place. It’s a great experiment. Let's continue it."

What that means as a matter of policy is unclear. Needless to say, a vigorous re-examination of the private option awaits.

Second, experience in state government counts for something. The private option wouldn't exist without the ingenuity of state Sen. Jonathan Dismang, a Republican. But it couldn't have evolved from an idea to a legitimate solution endorsed by the federal government without the political will of Gov. Mike Beebe. No governor in the modern era has proven more adept at managing the legislative process, but particularly the budget, and this session is no exception.

As the fiscal session reached its end, Beebe commented that he was surprised to be working so much on health care after his administration had focused primarily on economic development and education.



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