Wednesday, November 21, 2012

EDITORIAL >> Legislators in key posts

The selection of three Republican legislators from this area should improve the chances of bipartisan legislation passing next year, including tax reform and perhaps the expansion of Medicaid and establishing health-insurance exchanges online.

Rep. Davy Carter (R-Cabot) was elected speaker of the House last week after a vote to void the election of Rep. Darrin Williams (D-Little Rock), who was to have been the first black speaker of the House. That fell through when Democrats lost control of the Legislature on Nov. 6.

This is the first time Republicans have controlled the legislature since Reconstruction.

State Sen. Eddie Joe Williams (R-Cabot) was elected Senate majority leader to serve under Sen. Michael Lamoureux of Russellville, who was named Senate president pro tem. State Sen. Jonathan Dismang of Searcy was chosen majority whip.

Lamoureux replaces Sen. Larry Teague, a Democrat from Nashville, who was elected Senate president pro tem before Republicans took charge of the state Capitol.

Carter shrewdly moved up to speaker when he reach out to Democrats and unseated the earlier favorite, Rep. Terry Rice (R-Waldron).

Williams said his job will be to keep the Republicans united.

Carter was elected with overwhelming Democratic support. Most Republicans voted for Rice. Carter told The Leader last week his job is to build consensus among state legislators. The House is almost equally divided between 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats and one Green Party member, but he said he’s up to the challenge.

Health care and tax reform will be the biggest issues to work through in 2013, he said. The biggest challenge of the legislative session will be the $100 million shortfall in Medicaid, which could require scaling back benefits and letting Washington pay for most of the increased expenses.

Carter could craft agreements on both issues, particularly Medicare expansion supported with generous federal subsidies, which would benefit our overstretched hospitals, including North Metro Medical Center, which gives away millions of dollars in charity care every year.

Agreement is also needed on health-insurance exchanges to keep Washington from taking charge of the insurance marketplace in the state.

The Obama administration has extended the deadline until February for states to start health-insurance exchanges, or the federal government will do it for them. It would make no sense to give up state control to the feds.

Key lawmakers could negotiate a deal that would include tougher eligibility requirements for Medicaid recipients, including drug testing that Carter has supported in the past.

Gov. Mike Beebe has said he supports an expansion of the Mediciaid program to cover those earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. That expansion would require a three-fourths majority in the Legislature, but it’s not beyond reach. Legislators have passed bipartisan bills on more difficult issues.

In the meantime, congratulations to Carter, Williams and Dismang for taking key positions in the legislature and working toward the betterment of Arkansans.