Tuesday, February 16, 2016

EDITORIAL >> Telling it like it is (sort of)

News by its nature is mostly distressing, but you still have to pity poor Asa Hutchinson, who gets a double or triple dose of bad tidings each morning when he snatches up the public prints from the Mansion porch. The paper is full of stories about legislative races around the state, each one detailing how one or sometimes both Republican candidates for a legislative seat are denouncing “the private option” and promising to kill it if the voters will only install them in office next year.

They would be voting to wreck the Hutchinson administration in its promising infancy. Yesterday, with several beleaguered legislative supporters of the private option around him (including our own embattled Eddie Joe Williams and Jane English), the governor finally, flatly said exactly that.

Republicans, you know, are the governor’s political party, too. The big money groups like Americans for Prosperity, which have invested heavily in the Republican legislature the past six years, denounce the governor’s program in ads, statements and mailers and call on the candidates whom they finance to defeat it. They call Hutchinson a stooge for the despised Barack Obama or insinuate it. He must, in defense, express his own disdain for the president. It’s survival.

The Republican primary will be in two weeks and then the legislature’s 2016 fiscal session, where all the state budgets for the 2016–17 fiscal year will be adopted, will follow six weeks later. The new crop of legislators won’t take office until January, but the election results will shape what happens on the appropriation for the “private option,” which Hutchinson has renamed “Arkansas Works” to remove the odium that has attached to the private option because it is part of the Affordable Care Act, odiously known as Obamacare.

The daily stories must raise the governor’s anxiety level because he passed the appropriation for the private option last spring without a vote to spare in each house, and things have gone downhill since then. Arkansas is the only state in the union that requires a three-fourths vote in each house to authorize spending each nickel of state and federal money. (Actually, there are potential options to the extraordinary vote, but no one yet wants to give them credence.)

If the private option—OK, make that Arkansas Works—ends, either at the end of this fiscal year on June 30 or next year, the state budget collapses, too. So does Governor Hutchinson’s vaunted no-tax highway plan. So, too, does the governor’s plan to provide relief for the stressed prison and parole systems, and the adequacy status of Arkansas public schools. Everything is built upon the huge infusion of funds into the state treasury and the Arkansas economy from the Affordable Care Act—both private option/Arkansas Works and the rest of its insurance coverage—and the law’s redemption of scores of millions of dollars annually of state funds that previously were spent on categories of Medicaid help.

When the legislature, Governor Mike Beebe and then Governor Hutchinson got wind of the bonanza that fell into the state’s lap when it took advantage of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion to poor working adults in 2013, they took the popular step of cutting taxes, in 2013, again in 2014 and again in 2015. Why not? Obamacare was saving the treasury all that money and then sending more on top of it to provide health coverage for 300,000 of the state’s neediest for the first time. Obamacare made it possible for them to tell voters back home, “Look, I cut your taxes.” Naturally, they don’t credit the federal health law, or Obama.

What the governor discovered, even before he took office, was that he faced a daunting problem: overwhelming ignorance of the health law that became totally associated with the hated Obama. While the Republican-led legislature in 2013 jiggered with the Medicaid half of Obamacare and renamed it “the private option” to conceal its association with the federal law and the unpopular president, the rebranding didn’t take in many quarters. The party’s right wing still called it Obamacare.

So here is what Hutchinson said yesterday to give a lift to the beset Republican legislators who are still standing with him on the private option (strike that: Arkansas Works):

“If we do not work to get the truth out to Arkansas voters, then we’re not going to make that three-fourths vote margin because legislators listen to the voters. But I have confidence that if we debunk the erroneous arguments that are out there, if we get the truth out, and there’s a good understanding of the impact on our state budget, then absolutely we’re going to get the three-fourths vote, we’re going to get the support we need to have our budget balanced, we’re going to have a good state highway program and Medicaid reform.”

Hutchinson said he still hated Obamacare and wished that it would be repealed, but that “Arkansas Works” was NOT OBAMACARE!!

If he could afford to be totally honest, the governor would also say that Obamacare did not take Medicare away but expanded it, didn’t cause people to lose their doctors, didn’t take away people’s health insurance, didn’t sentence old people to death, didn’t raise people’s insurance premiums (annual premium increases have actually slackened), reduced the share of uninsured Americans to historic lows (another 300,000 Arkansans are now insured), reduced the federal budget deficit, didn’t cost millions or even thousands of people their jobs but dramatically reduced the jobless rolls from 8 percent when the law took effect to 4.9 percent.

That sort of candor would get him ridden out of the Capitol on a rail, or worse. Instead, we will take such honesty as he can spare. — Ernie Dumas