Wednesday, January 16, 2013

TOP STORY >> Area legislators hopeful

Leader senior staff writer

Gov. Mike Beebe alluded mysteriously to the likelihood of one of the largest economic development announcements in the near future that the state has ever seen in his state of the state address Tuesday, then moved on without elaboration to more predictable fare.

Addressing the opening session of the 89th General Assembly, Beebe’s speech was well-stated and well-received, focusing on Medicaid, Medicaid expansion, education and also finishing the elimination of all but 1/8 percent on the grocery tax. He said until the state came up with new revenue—perhaps cessation of the $70 million a year state support of desegregation in Pulaski County school districts—it could not afford to eliminate the tax completely.

Beebe alluded to big economic news coming soon to Arkansas, but would say no more. He said his legislative agenda included joining an Intrastate Educational Compact, which would make it easier for students to change schools when their military parents are transferred to another state. Also included is a proposal that would allow the state to recognize licenses and certification from other states for military spouses who move to Arkansas. He has cited the examples of teachers and nurses.

Local lawmakers expressed hopes that both Republicans—who control both houses of the legislature for the first time—and Democrats can pull in tandem to address those issues facing the state.

“Nobody wants to throw nursing home patients out of their beds,” Beebe said, and the money spent on the $300 million Medicaid shortfall and more on the expansion would be an investment in the state.

“Expanding Medicaid can keep hospitals open and operational,” the governor said. “It can give 250,000 Arkansans the chance to lead healthier, more productive lives. It can ease uncompensated care and relieve the hidden tax that we all pay. It will create additional private-sector jobs. We just have to say yes.”


“There’s a lot more to that conversation than ‘yes,’” said Dist. 28 Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe. “We have to have assurances we can afford it in the future. There’s a lot of uncertainty on the federal level.”

Dismang said he had been gathering all the information he could about the cost of Medicaid and expanding it by 250,000 Arkansans. He wondered how that would overlay the budget. Would it cause future problems?

For those states that opt for Medicaid expansion, the federal government would pay all costs for the first three years with the state paying more until 2017, when gradually Arkansas’ share would top out at 10 percent.

Dismang’s committee assignments include the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee, the Arkansas Legislative Council and the Joint Budget Committee.

House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, has said he hopes to work closely with the governor, a Democrat, on the Medicaid issue, but he’s not ready to commit to the expansion. Carter, a banker who has resigned to devote full time to his speaker’s job, said he’s been studying the numbers and says he expects a number of vigorous debates on the Medicaid issues.

Carter said Tuesday he didn’t know if the Medicaid expansion would be a straight up or down vote or whether there could be a substitute bill.

He said so far the spirit of bipartisanship continues, but the first two days have been largely ceremonial.

“We’ve had probably 30 or 40 bills filed in the House and making their way through the committee process,” Carter said. “They should start showing up on the House calendar.”


“The governor delivered a very powerful address about the issues facing us and the need to address them in a bipartisan manner,” said Dist. 41 Rep. Jim Nickels, D- Sher-wood. “I think we can protect the working poor,” he said.

He said that after sounding out the leadership, including the House speaker and the Senate president pro-temp Michael Lamoureax, R-Russellville, there would be a spirit of cooperation.

Nickels said he had prefiled two bills—one to restore the 26th week of unemployment insurance taken away last session and the other to require that tax dollars be spent on American goods. He cited the example of a bridge built by then-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, which used Chinese steel.

Of the unemployment insurance, Nickels said there was no shared sacrifice last time, when $68 million was taken out of the pockets of the unemployed “while those who laid them off paid nothing.”

Nickels is on the State Agencies and the Judiciary Committees and the Public Retirement and Social Security Committee as well as the Joint Budget Committee.

“The governor’s speech did well to address his priorities, including economic development and education, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act,” Dist. 42 Rep. Mark Perry, D-Jacksonville, said.

Perry, on the public health, insurance and commerce committees as well as the Joint Retirement and Social Security Committee, said he may propose tweaking legislation a little bit regarding chiropractors and police reports.


Of the Medicaid expansion, Perry said it would shift most of the cost to the federal government and would benefit those with private insurance, who are invisibly taxed by helping cover hospital bills from the poor and uninsured.

Dist. 29 Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot, is co-chairman of the State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee. In addition to the Medicaid and education questions, he said he’s interested in referring lawsuit reform and ethics-reform bills to the voters. He’d require the state Supreme Court and the Legislature to work closer on bills that relate to the judicial system.

“The first day was great, an exciting day with a lot of good feelings,” said Dist. 34 Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock. “I think we’re all going to be able to be working together.”

Of the Medicaid and Medicaid expansion questions, “I don’t think people have enough information to make a good decision yet,” she said. She predicted there would be a lot of people working “across the aisle.”


English has filed a bill to establish a task force on a veterans home. The task force will look at fixing the existing structure — physical and operational — and see if a new one needs be built, and if so, how to pay for it. The task force would work beginning in May and report its finding by November, she said. She said it’s important for veterans’ groups like the American Legion and Disabled American Veterans be involved in the task force.

She said the federal government would pay two-thirds of the construction, with the state paying the balance.

English’s committee assignments include co-chairman of the Joint Performance Review Committee and vice chairman of the Senate State Agencies and Govern-mental Affairs committee.

There are 40 new members in the House, English noted. “It’s going to be an interesting year,” she added.

Dist. 14 Rep. Walls McCrary, D-Lonoke, said he agreed with Beebe on his issues, which include the Medicaid and Medicaid expansion questions.

“I think we’ll have a pretty good battle over that. A lot of new members promised that were running against it,” he said.

Because it’s a revenue bill, it requires passage by 75 of the 100 votes in the House, he noted.


“I think Davy Carter will be a good speaker,” he said. “He’s bent over backward to be real inclusive.”

McCrary said Medicaid expansion would pass “if we have enough people who look the Medicaid situation based on the number — how it will help and what it will cost us if we don’t go along.”

“It’s just a question of ideology involved,” he added. “I don’t know how it’s going to play out.”

Dist. 38 Rep. Patti Julian, D-North Little Rock, said she likes the governor’s idea to finish lowering the grocery tax if other revenues become available — perhaps cessation of paying about $70 million in desegregation suit monies to the Pulaski County school districts.

At the request of the North Little Rock Animal Shelter, Julian may introduce a bill that has to do with animal licensure, with the intention of reducing the number of stray and abandoned pets and reducing the rate of euthanasia.