Drama in the Legislature over Arkansas Works? 3 reasons why not, this time

Arkansas Legislature, Arkansas WorksWill there be the usual drama over Arkansas Works when the Legislature meets for its fiscal session Feb. 12? Probably not so much.

Originally known as the “private option,” Arkansas Works is the Obamacare-funded program created in 2013 that purchases private health insurance for lower-income Arkansans. It’s helped a lot of people obtain insurance – currently 286,000 Arkansans. But it’s also a government health care expansion, which makes it controversial.

It’s always had the majority votes needed in the House and Senate. The challenge for supporters has been funding it. Arkansas Works is run by the Department of Human Services. All state agency appropriations require a three-fourths vote – 27 in the Senate and 75 in the House. In theory, nine senators or 26 representatives can kill Arkansas Works by refusing to fund the department.

And they have tried, again and again. Last year, the appropriation for the department’s Division of Medical Services failed twice in both the House and Senate before both chambers passed it on the third attempt, with no votes to spare in the Senate. One of the yes votes, Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot, has since resigned to work in the Trump administration. Another Arkansas Works supporter, Sen. Greg Standridge, R-Russellville, died Nov. 16. He was ill during last years session and didn’t vote.

The bottom line is that the Senate might be short a vote or two at the moment. Even though there are only 33 senators, appropriations still require the same 27 yes votes.

Why not this time?

So if opponents have the votes, why would this session lack the drama? Three reasons.

– First, the new numbers. The rolls have been trimmed by almost 60,000 recipients in the past year, partly through better management under the leadership of DHS Director Cindy Gillespie, and partly because more people have jobs in this economy. The reduced rolls have made it possible for Gov. Asa Hutchinson to request almost half a billion dollars less for Medicaid than he’d expected to request.

So an argument can be made that it’s achieving its goals, and that it’s also moving in the right direction for those who want less of it.

– Second, the new president. President Trump’s administration will probably give Arkansas what President Obama’s wouldn’t – more flexibility to enact reforms and limit beneficiaries. Hutchinson has asked for permission to trim the rolls further by lowering the maximum income for eligibility, and also to require younger, able-bodied recipients to work or prepare to work. Permission is expected to be granted. Moreover, as long as Obama was in the White House, some people were going to be against anything he was for, especially anything connected to Obamacare. Now that he’s gone, some of the emotion has left the building.

– Finally, after all these years, opponents simply may not have the stomach for a fight. There’s been a big battle almost every session since the expansion was created, and in the end the appropriation has passed. Some of the opponents may be ready to accept that Arkansas Works is here to stay until something changes in Washington. Also, Hutchinson faces a primary election battle against Jan Morgan, and some legislators may not want to go to war with their governor over this issue right now.

In interviews, opposition to Arkansas Works seems softer

I’ve talked to four senators who didn’t vote for the appropriation in the last session, and only one was a hard no this time. The others were willing to consider it. Moreover, I talked to eight of the nine candidates running for Standridge’s and Williams’ seats and an open House seat. Six of them, including five Republicans, said they would keep Arkansas Works.

That’s a big change. When Obama was president, Republican candidates who supported the state’s program often wouldn’t admit it. Instead, they would say they were studying it or had not yet formed an opinion. Hutchinson did that when he ran for governor in 2014.

Much can change between now and the beginning of the session. But by the end, the funding for Arkansas Works will pass, and relatively undramatically.

That’s my prediction, anyway.

By Steve Brawner

© 2018 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Related: Can work be added to Arkansas Works?

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