Posted 1/1/2014 03:39 pm
Updated 7 months ago
LITTLE ROCK — With a limited legislative session focused primarily on the state's budget, Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe is approaching his final year in office with an agenda that includes boosting funding for the state's prison system and protecting the Medicaid expansion he signed into law.
What it doesn't include is a focus on his political future. After a career that includes 20 years in the state Senate, four years as attorney general and two terms as governor, Beebe insists he's nearing the end of his public life.
"Where am I going to go? Washington?" Beebe told The Associated Press in an interview in his office. "I want good people to go up there. Just don't make me do it. I don't want to be a hypocrite about it, but I'd argue that 32 years of public office, I've served my time. I've given back. I've done what I was supposed to do."
Unlike his predecessor and former Gov. Mike Huckabee, who wrapped up his final year in office preparing for a White House bid, Beebe says 2014 will mark the end of his life in politics and elected office. The Democratic governor, who turned 67 last week, said he doesn't know yet what the next chapter will be when he leaves the governor's mansion in January 2015.
"I may teach a college course. I may serve on a board or two, but I have nothing specific in mind," Beebe said. "I don't have anything lined up. I haven't made any specific decisions, and I probably won't for several months. I'll take some time, and enjoy a little bit of retirement."
Before that retirement, Beebe has one last legislative session. On Jan. 14, his administration is expected to release his proposed budget for the coming fiscal year as lawmakers prepare for the 2014 fiscal session. It'll be the third fiscal session — focused primarily on the state's budget — under a constitutional amendment that Beebe opposed but voters approved in 2008.
More From Beebe: Arkansas Business talked to Beebe for our final Executive Q&A of 2013. Read the full interview here.
Beebe declined to offer many details on his budget, but said it'll include $12 million to $13 million in additional funding to open new state prison beds and to reimburse counties as a result of the state overhauling its parole and probation policies. The policy changes, enacted in response to a parolee who managed to avoid being locked up before he allegedly killed a man in Little Rock this year, have led to a crowding of county jails holding state inmates.
"We've got a huge need for a lot of additional money, both for opening new beds in prisons as well for paying counties for what has amounted to a huge backlog that has accumulated in the past six months," Beebe said. "There's going to need to be significant increases in state revenue for both paying counties and for increasing prison bed availability."
Beebe said his budget will also include additional help for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, as well as for some of the state's two-year and four-year colleges and universities, though he declined to detail the specific funding amounts he's seeking.
But what likely will take the bulk of his time during the session that begins in February is the renewed fight over the state's "private option" plan to use federal Medicaid money to purchase private insurance for thousands of low-income residents.
The plan was approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature as a compromise to expanding Medicaid under the federal health care law, and the state enrolled thousands to begin coverage Wednesday at the start of the year. In order for the program to continue, lawmakers must approve its funding bill — a move that will require 27 votes in the 35-member Senate and 75 votes in the 100-member House.
Republicans who opposed the plan have vowed to push for its defunding during the fiscal session, with some GOP lawmakers who supported the private option facing primary challenges. In the lead up to the session, Beebe has been using his public appearances and speeches to call on lawmakers to continue funding the private option. He's also warned that the tax cut package lawmakers approved was based partly on the savings the state expected to see by hospitals' uncompensated care costs being reduced because of the expanded coverage.
Beebe said the comments don't reflect an increased worry about the private option failing, but reflects how difficult of a vote threshold the plan faces.
"Any time you've got a three-fourths vote, you're always concerned," Beebe said. "But I really don't anticipate people going the other way, but you know me, I'm always conservative and I'm always cautious."
For Beebe, 2014 could also mark the first step toward delivering on his campaign promise to phase out nearly all of the state's sales tax on groceries. Beebe signed into law legislation that would cut all but the constitutionally mandated 1/8 cent conservation tax from groceries if the state's bond obligations or desegregation payments to Little Rock area schools decrease by $35 million over a six-month period. Beebe has successfully pushed for cutting the grocery tax from 6 percent when he took office in 2007 to 1.5 percent.
A federal judge in January will decide whether to approve an agreement between the state and the three districts to phase out the funding after the 2017-18 school year. Beebe said he's fairly confident the plan will win that approval.
Beebe said he proposed the triggered tax cut approach because he believed a judge would eventually end the desegregation payments, not necessarily because he thought an agreement would be reached.
"Either one, it's worked, and we need to keep doing it. Or two, it hasn't worked, so we don't need to keep doing it. Take your pick," Beebe said. "It coming to an end, I think, that's money now that will go back into the pockets of Arkansans by doing the rest of the grocery tax."
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