Posted 2/2/2014 10:52 am
Updated 2 months ago
LITTLE ROCK — Two of Mike Beebe's biggest selling points as Arkansas' governor over the past seven years have been his mastery of the state's complex budget system and his ability to survive the recent Republican political tide. The looming fight over the state's Medicaid expansion will test both of those.
What will likely be Beebe's final legislative session will be dominated by a renewed debate over the private option that was approved last year.
Crafted as an alternative to the Medicaid expansion under the federal health care law, the private option uses federal money to purchase private insurance for thousands of low-income residents newly eligible for Medicaid.
Less than a year after Beebe and Republican legislative leaders narrowly won support for the plan, the program that has extended coverage to more than 79,000 people is at risk of being discontinued during the session that begins Feb. 10. With an opponent of the program winning a special election for a state Senate seat and a former supporter reversing course, the program is now at least one vote shy of the three-fourths support needed to be reauthorized.
With the program at jeopardy, Beebe is regularly using his public appearances to call on lawmakers to continue the program, alternating between a budgetary appeal and a political one as he nears what will be his last planned legislative session before leaving office.
The budget argument has come down to the $89 million administration officials say they're counting on as savings from the private option cutting down on hospitals' uncompensated care costs. Without the program, the state will need to find a way to make up for those savings after a tax cut package was approved last year depending in part on the private option.
Ending the program could threaten the state's efforts to help local jails that have become overcrowded with state inmates, Beebe warned members of Arkansas Sheriffs Association.
"If we don't repeal the tax cuts and we don't save the $80-something-million through continuation of private option, we're in a hole $80-something-million. ... So you've got a big interest in the private option, whether you've got a big interest in the private option or not," Beebe told the group.
Whether lawmakers will buy that argument will depend on how much credence they give to Beebe's mastery of the state budget after nearly eight years as governor and more than 20 years as a state senator. The state's ability to weather a recent financial downturn without any of the massive layoffs or cutbacks that hit other states has been an accomplishment that Beebe has been able to point toward as he wraps up his final year.
Beebe demonstrated how crucial the budget argument will be when he disputed Republican gubernatorial hopeful and former rival Asa Hutchinson's statement that there was "fuzziness" surrounding the projections. Beebe, who is unable to seek re-election because of term limits, defeated Hutchinson in the 2006 governor's race.
"Those people who would criticize that budget, whether it's Mr. Hutchinson or anybody else, if they've got better numbers, I'd sure like to hear them," Beebe said.
The other argument that will be key for Beebe will be the political one, as he tries to again win over Republicans who have seen their fortunes rise in the state primarily by running against the federal health law.
That argument will test Beebe's ability to withstand the political currents that have boosted the GOP in recent years. The governor survived the 2010 election that gave Republicans major gains in the state, and has seen his approval ratings remain high at the same time other Democrats have suffered.
Beebe's argued for the expansion while at the same time pointing out that he was an opponent of the health law that it spawned. He's also compared ending coverage for the thousands on the private option to the insurance policy cancellations that marred the rollout of the health care law last year. Those cancellations came in spite of President Barack Obama's oft-repeated promise that if you liked your insurance you could keep it.
"People were relying on it believing they were going to get this health care and acting accordingly, signing up and all those things," Beebe told reporters last week. "If they lose it, it's analogous to folks being able to rely on the attitude that they weren't going to lose their previous insurance and that not being true."