Friday, February 06, 2015

TOP STORY >> Tax cut signed, option passes

Leader senior staff writer

Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed SB6, his $100 million middle-class tax-cut bill, into law Friday as Act 22 of 2015.

“It was a great day for hardworking Arkansas families,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Jonathan Dismang (R-Searcy), who was lead sponsor for the bill. “I’m glad to be part of delivering that tax cut.”

SB101, an $8 billion appropriation for the Department of Human Services — about $1.6 billion of that to fund private option for the next fiscal year — also passed its final hurdle. The House passed it Thursday and it was forwarded to the governor for his signature.

Both houses have passed SB96, the governor’s Health Care Reform Act of 2015, with the Senate yet to approve an amendment adding House sponsors to the bill.

The tax bill cuts the tax rate by 1 percent for Arkansans earning between $21,000 and $75,000 a year.

“I want to thank the legislators for their diligent work in passing this tax cut for working Arkansans,” Hutchinson said in a news release. “I am especially grateful to the leadership of both houses for their efforts on this bill. They truly did the work of the people — and the people of Arkansas will benefit.

“This is an encouraging first step in making Arkansas’ income-tax rates more competitive with surrounding states, which will only enhance our reputation as a state that is eager to attract and accommodate new jobs and businesses.

“Arkansas has been an island of high taxation for too long, and I’m pleased that we are doing something about that,” Hutchinson said.

The tax-cut bill passed the Senate 31-2, with Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock) voting against it, and by 95-2 in the House.

The House, with the support of nearly all local lawmakers, passed the two pieces of the Governor’s health care reform plan, previously passed by the Senate, Friday.

“The vote in the House (Thursday) on the Health Reform Task Force bill and accompanying appropriation was a bipartisan effort and represents the right step forward as we seek ways to best reform Medicaid in Arkansas,” Hutchinson said.

State Rep. Joe Farrer (R-Austin), hoping for appointment to the Medicaid reform task force it creates, spoke at length in favor of SB96, the Health Care Reform Act of 2015, in the House Thursday.

The bill also calls for continuation of private option through Dec. 31, 2016.

The bill, which needed only 51 votes, was approved 80-16, with Donnie Copeland (R-Little Rock), among the lawmakers who voted against it. Copeland’s district includes a sliver of Sherwood.

The bill, which passed in the Senate 27-7, still needs Senate approval of a house amendment that added cosponsors to the bill.

Dismang, and Sen. Eddie Joe Wil-liams (R-Cabot) were among 15 Senate sponsors.

Local representatives among the 22 cosponsoring the bill included Farrer, Jeremy Gillam, (R-Judsonia), Bob Johnson (D-Jacksonville) and Tim Lemons (R-Cabot).

State Rep. Kelley Linck (R-Flippin), lead sponsor of the bill, said that prior to private option, hospitals were required to provide uncompensated care and that, on short notice, private option seemed the best way to comply with Medicaid expansion of the Affordable Care Act.

“People have to take care of themselves,” Linck said. “We’ve got to have a healthier Arkansas before we can afford a system. This ends the debate and moves us forward into a new conversation.”

He called the hybrid system known as private option “the most debated topic since secession” from the union.

“It gives us an opportunity to change a broken system that has cost us billions of dollars,” said Farrer, who then gave a brief summary of the seven sections of the Health Care Reform Act under consideration.

Calling it a comprise bill, he said “it creates rules and a purpose. It develops an Arkansas plan, limits federal regulations and promotes healthy behavior and personal responsibility.”

Farrer said it allows the state to apply for block grants and waivers to design a program that fits Arkansas.

“It ends private option in December 2016, allows us to design a program that fits Arkansans and saves Arkansas $3 billion.”

“Most important,” Farrer said Friday, “it gets rid of Medicaid expansion and lets us reform the entire Medicaid system” in the state.

“We are carrying on the good work of the 89th General Assembly,” said Johnson, speaking for the bill. “This bill not only takes care of the health care needs of Arkansans, but of hospitals, and it’s affordable.”

Copeland, speaking against the bill, said that it didn’t technically repeal the Health Care Reform Act of 2013, and he had tried earlier to substitute a bill of his own, which did not get out of committee.

SB101, which funded the Department of Human Services and private option through the next fiscal year, passed the House 82-16, and was sent Thursday to the governor for his signature.

The bill appropriates about $8 billion to DHS, about $2 billion of that for the Division of Medical Services, and about three-quarters of that for private option.

As an appropriation bill, it needed a supermajority — 75 votes. Copeland was among those voting against it.