Fiscal Session 2014: A User's Guide to the Arkansas Legislature

LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas Legislature convenes Monday for a session restricted to the state's financial matters. The top item on the agenda is whether the state should continue its compromise Medicaid expansion under the federal health care law.

This will be the third fiscal session under an amendment voters approved in 2008 requiring the Legislature to meet and budget annually. Under the amendment, the Legislature meets for regular sessions in odd-numbered years and slimmed-down sessions focused on the state's budget in even-numbered years.

A rundown about the lawmakers and the issues they'll face during the fiscal session of the 89th General Assembly:

THE BIG QUESTION

Arkansas lawmakers are looking at a proposed $5 billion budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1, but the key matter for legislators as they open their session will be the future of the so-called private option Medicaid expansion. In 2013, the House and Senate, by narrow margins, adopted a plan through which the state would use federal Medicaid dollars to purchase medical insurance for its poorer residents.

Because continuing the private option will requiring appropriating money, it'll need at least three-fourths support in the House and Senate. Since the bill passed last year, one state senator has said she now opposes the novel funding plan and a newly elected state senator campaigned on a platform in which he opposed the private option.

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

By approving the use of federal dollars to pay for private medical insurance for the state's poorer residents, Arkansas legislators put their own stamp on the expansion of Medicaid under provisions of the Affordable Care Act. This is an election year, and Republicans who fear they may be branded as supporting any element of what is derisively called "Obamacare" may oppose the private option, fearing a challenge from the right.

OFF TO THE RACES

The midterm election will loom large over the session, and lawmakers may have to take a break from budget talks to kick off campaign season. The one-week filing period for state and federal offices begins Feb. 24, likely overlapping with the session. Several lawmakers are running for statewide and congressional office, while many others are seeking re-election. They're not all playing by the same rules when it comes to fundraising. The Senate doesn't bar its members from raising campaign funds during the fiscal session, but the House does.

LIVING LARGE AND IN CHARGE

Republicans last year enjoyed control of the Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction, and in 2014 will have an even larger majority in the Senate. Republican House Speaker Davy Carter of Cabot and Republican Senate President Pro Tem Michael Lamoureux of Russellville will lead the chambers again, while Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, is in his final year as governor.

TWO OUT

A pair of key figures from the 2013 session won't be around this year because of ethics violations. Paul Bookout, a Democrat from Russellville, resigned his Senate seat in August after the state Ethics Commission found he misspent money from a campaign account. Mark Darr, who was the state's Republican lieutentant governor until Feb 1, also quit after ethics officials found fault with his campaign and office spending. He quit under threat of impeachment.

THE CLOCK IS RUNNING

Fiscal sessions, under the state constitution, are shorter than the general sessions that occur in odd-numbered years. Legislators have 30 working days to wrap up, though with a three-fourths vote they can stay up to 45 days.

TAKING PART

It's been said that making laws is a lot like making sausage, something that most people wouldn't want to watch. The process is intriguing, however, and makes for a great spectator sport. Bills can be tracked on the General Assembly website at Arkleg.state.ar.us.

HOW CAN YOU TELL THE PLAYERS WITHOUT A SCORECARD?

Every Arkansas resident is represented by one House member and one Senate member. (There's one House member for every 30,000 people and one Senate member for every 85,000 people.) You can find out the names of your legislators in the Senate and in the House.

HOW CAN I WATCH THE ACTION?

The House broadcasts its proceedings at www.arkansashouse.org but the Senate does not have any feeds. The House and Senate galleries are open to the public, and most meetings also have space for visitors. Parking is at a premium adjacent to the Capitol, but available a short walk away. Committee hearings and agendas are at Arkleg.state.ar.us to make it easier to track issues.

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Capitol-based writers Andrew DeMillo and Christina Huynh are covering this year's legislative session for The Associated Press. Follow them on Twitter at @ademillo and @ckhuynh

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