Happy new year. In Arkansas politics, it’s going to be an eventful one.
In January, Gov. Asa Hutchinson will meet with U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell to request a waiver for “Arkansas Works.” That’s his version of the private option, the program that uses federal Medicaid dollars to purchase private insurance for lower-income individuals. He’s asking for changes that will require more personal responsibility on the part of recipients, and which will make it more acceptable to Republican legislators. Those legislators will vote on Arkansas Works, or something like it, in a special session focused on health care in the middle of the year.
January also will be the month that Hutchinson will announce his thoughts on funding Arkansas highways. A task force he appointed presented several options in December, all but one of which raised taxes, which he said is unacceptable. Arkansas highways need more money. Unfortunately, money does not grow on trees, so it will have to be found somewhere. There could be a special session about highways, too, followed by a ballot issue where voters will decide on a funding mechanism.
In February, the shrinking presidential field will shrink more after the Iowa caucus (Feb. 1) and the New Hampshire primary (Feb. 9) leave no doubt who won’t win. Then on March 1, Arkansans will vote as part of a bloc of Southern states that is being called the “SEC primary.” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, could have a big night across the South, including in Arkansas – particularly if Gov. Mike Huckabee leaves the race after Iowa.
Most of the media coverage will focus on the presidential election, but Capitol watchers also will be paying close attention to contested Republican legislative primaries, particularly three Senate races that pit private option supporters Rep. Lance Eads, R-Springdale; Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot; and Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock; against private option opponents Sharon Lloyd, R.D. Hopper, and Rep. Donnie Copeland, R-Little Rock. Those races are particularly important because the private option (or Arkansas Works, if that’s what we’re calling it) requires three-fourths support in the Legislature, which means nine senators can kill it. On the other hand, some legislators who have campaigned against the program have softened their stances once in office.
Following the primary, legislators will meet in April and May in a fiscal session, which occurs every two years and focuses on budgetary matters. This will be the first fiscal session since it was created by voters in 2008 that will occur after the primary elections rather than before them. In other words, it will involve some lawmakers who just lost an election – and who then will consider legislation in a special session about health care, and then maybe will meet in a special session about highways as well.
By September, nothing will matter in politics except the upcoming elections. Again, everyone will be talking about the presidential race even though the outcome in reliably Republican Arkansas is a foregone conclusion. Except for a few fundraising visits, the campaigns will ignore the state. And no, it does not matter if the Democratic nominee is Arkansas’ former first lady, Hillary Clinton.
The 2014 elections were disappointing for Arkansas Democrats, who tried very hard to re-elect Sen. Mark Pryor and to elect Mike Ross as governor. Meanwhile, Republicans strengthened their hold on the Legislature and other state elected offices.
It will be interesting to see what the Democrats muster in 2016. Politically, Clinton is a better standard-bearer for them in Arkansas than President Obama, but she’s not that much better. However, the Democrats are running a young, attractive candidate for Senate, Conner Eldridge, against incumbent Sen. John Boozman. Eldridge probably won’t win, but he’ll bring some energy to the party. Democrats also must be encouraged by the recent Louisiana governor’s race, where the Democrat, John Bel Edwards, defeated Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter. Granted, Edwards is a former Army Airborne Ranger while Vitter has a history with prostitutes. But a win is a win.
So a year from now, I guess we’ll have a new president-elect, probably the same U.S. senators, a changing health care system in Arkansas, potentially a new highway funding mechanism, and a Legislature that will be different, but probably not much so.
I said “eventful,” not “earth-shaking.” But then, a lot of unpredictable events can happen in 365 days.
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