Arkansas Democrats, Republicans Seek Consensus in State Legislature

LITTLE ROCK - Republicans and Democrats in the Arkansas Legislature vowed Wednesday to find common ground on tax cuts, Medicaid's future and other divisive issues, a day after voters handed the GOP control of the state Senate for the first time since Reconstruction but left the balance of power in the House up in the air.

Tuesday's election results in Arkansas, where Republicans also swept the state's four congressional seats, complicated the to-do list for Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe and lawmakers from both parties. Neither party won the so-called supermajority needed to pass budget bills, and the House faced the possibility of neither party controlling an outright majority.

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Beebe, a popular Democrat who won re-election in 2010 and was his party's chief spokesman for maintaining a legislative majority, said he believed both parties could find a way to work together.

"I have every confidence that the majority, not all, the majority of the men and women in both the Senate and the House, Republicans and Democrats, will rise to the occasion and meet those governing responsibilities in a typical Arkansas, common-sense, pragmatic fashion," Beebe told reporters at the state Capitol.

Republicans won 21 of 35 seats in the state Senate. In the House, they held a 50-48-1 edge over Democrats and the Green Party with results from a Benton County contest still to be counted. There was no Democrat in the race, and a GOP victory in a race against an independent would give Republicans control of the House for the first time since 1874.

Though Republicans were already claiming a majority in both chambers, the official call could be days away as technical problems delayed the count.

There was little time for Republicans to savor their victories, or for Democrats to let their newfound minority status in the Legislature sink in. State Senate members planned to meet Thursday to select committee chairmen and elect a new president of that chamber. House members also planned to have an organizational meeting Friday.

Sen. Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville, who was likely to be elected that chamber's new president, indicated that Republican lawmakers did not view Tuesday's results as a mandate to split sharply from Democrats' policies.

"Nothing on the extreme end is going to happen," Lamoureux said. "Anyone who was planning on changing the world in 2013 probably needs to look for another job."

Sen. Robert Thompson, the top Democrat in that chamber, said the ability for both parties to work together would be tested by the high vote threshold for matters such as budget bills.

"It's difficult to get a lot done in the Legislature with a bare majority and so I certainly hope that both houses of the Legislature will be able to operate by consensus and compromise as opposed to a desire to pass an agenda along party lines," Thompson said.

But the divide between both parties on the major issues facing the Legislature next year is as long as the list of obstacles to finding consensus. Beebe reiterated that his priority for tax cuts next year remains his push to reduce the state's grocery tax, while Republicans say they'd rather focus on cutting the state's income tax.

Beebe would not say if he definitely planned to propose another grocery tax cut, but noted that a projected shortfall in the state's Medicaid program — currently projected at $358 million but likely to change when he presents his budget next week — could halt any tax-reduction talks.

"Before anybody starts talking about tax relief, they better put some real names and faces and people in their priority list and look at what our budget looks like," Beebe said.

Also up in the air was Beebe's support for expanding Medicaid's eligibility under the federal health care law, which would require a three-fourths majority in both chambers to enact. DHS officials said expanding the eligibility would add 250,000 people to the state's Medicaid rolls.

Beebe noted that passing the Medicaid expansion was already a tough sell in the Legislature before the election, when Democrats held a majority but were far short of the 75 votes needed.

"If the two sides can't get together and figure this stuff out, then it is what it is," Beebe said.

Lamoureux has said that the expansion is not off the table with a Republican majority, but said GOP lawmakers want to see reforms in exchange for any growth of the program.

"It's going to be the toughest issue that people feel the strongest about," Lamoureux said. "I don't know what we're going to be able to work out about it. I think that's going to consume a lot of our time trying to figure that out."

Under the health care law, the federal government will pay for a state's Medicaid expansion beginning in 2014. After three years, states must pay a gradually increasing share that tops out at 10 percent of the cost.

State Rep. Bruce Westerman, the Republicans' leader in the House, all but declared the expansion dead with a GOP majority in the Senate and at least a plurality in the House.

"I don't see the support for adding 250,000 people to Medicaid with a three-year deal and the chance we'd have to kick people off the program after three years," he said. "That form of Medicaid expansion, I don't think is a serious proposal."

Tuesday's election also showed how much both parties in the House suffered from lawmakers' scandals. State Rep. Hudson Hallum's resignation after his ballot fraud conviction — and a judge's Election Day decision that no votes could be counted for him — paved the way for Fred Smith to be the chamber's only Green Party lawmaker and cost Democrats a seat that could have at least split the House 50-50.

And voter backlash against the racially charged writings of three Republican House candidates — two incumbents and a former lawmaker challenging a Democratic representative — likely cost the GOP a more decisive margin.

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