Wednesday, February 19, 2014

TOP STORY >> English saves option

Leader senior staff writer

Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock) moved private-option health care for the working poor a step closer to reality by saying she’s now for it, while another local lawmaker, Rep. Joe Farrer (R-Austin), was among a handful in the House slamming the door — for now.

Funding for private-option health care failed by five to get the needed 75 votes in the House on Tuesday, prompting Speaker Davy Carter (R-Cabot) to say he would bring it to a vote every day until it’s approved.

Carter sets the House calendar.

As a funding bill, it requires 75 percent passage in both houses of the General Assembly. That’s 75 of 100 votes in the House and 27 of 35 votes in the Senate.

Carter was clearly unhappy, particularly with representatives like Ann Clemmer (R-Benton), who suddenly changed her vote.

“We’ll vote tomorrow,” Carter said Tuesday, “and everyday until private option passes.”

The Senate is also expected to vote on the bill Wednesday.

He said negotiations are over and those standing in the way of health care insurance for the working poor will “own it.” (See editorial, p. 8A.)

“I’m not going to let a handful of members dictate this process,” he said. “Theoretically, we could vote 25 more days.”

Carter said he thought he heard a couple of “campaign speeches” given on the floor by those opposing the measure.

He said it was just wrong to tell state residents six months ago that private option was the law of the land then refuse to fund it after they had given up on or lost other insurance.

Rep. Mark Perry (D- Jacksonville) said after Tuesday’s vote, “I think they will eventually come around. I think we have some folks who are confusing it with the Affordable Care Act and don’t understand who it helps.”

Carter has said he won’t be asking the nays to change their votes, but Perry said, “We’ll educate them behind the scenes.

“I think it will be passed before Friday,” Perry said.

English, a long-time foe of Medicaid expansion in any form, announced Monday that she agreed to become the critical 27th vote needed in the state Senate to fund private option.

While she said the workforce reform and her vote on public option were linked, Gov. Mike Beebe stopped short of calling it quid pro quo.

English said the agreement didn’t have any direct impact on the area she represents — no new facility or program aimed at North Little Rock or Sherwood, where she had served as a state representative.

English said she had been in talks with Beebe and his cabinet for several weeks trying to garner support for realignment of workforce education, a longtime interest of hers.

Among other things, her agreement with the governor would provide millions for training and for college and career readiness, an evaluation of existing Department of Higher Education programs and a funding formula for two-year colleges, according to a report in Talk Business.

“We need to turn the system upside down, to look at K-12 education,” English said. “Twenty-five or 30 percent drop out of school. Many others drop out mentally, going to school but turned off and with no successful future.

“Not everyone fits in that college box. We need an alternate plan,” she said. “We need to catch them before they drop out and offer other skills. We need to take pots of money around the state for training and centralize them.”

English called Arkansas a welfare state. She said there are about 30,000 unfilled jobs in the state and that people need to learn the skills to fill them.

“I’m not a fan of Obama-care,” she said. “I wish we weren’t even talking about this.

About the education issues,  English said, “The states around us got the message that something isn’t working, and they are doing good things.”

Tennessee announced last week that it would make two-year colleges free for its residents.

The fact that 250,000 working Arkansans were eligible for public-option health care shows the sorry state of education and job training in the state, she said.

English said she was optimistic that with proper changes in workforce education, maybe this time next year, there won’t be 250,000 people eligible.

“I still believe in the American dream,” English said. “I believe people would like to have a good paying job, a house and a family.”