Friday, March 04, 2016

EDITORIAL >> Asa wins Primary

On the day after Arkansas’ historically early party primaries and election, Gov. Hutchinson sort of claimed victory. Although his name was not on the ballot, he said the election—at least the Republican segment of it—was indeed a referendum on Asa Hutchinson. He had performed the rare expedient of openly endorsing seven candidates for the legislature in his own party’s primary, which we do not recall having happened in modern times. He bragged that five of them won, including state Sen. Eddie Joe Williams (R-Cabot) and Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock).

Hutchinson agreed with assessments by newspaper columnists that even though he was not on the ballot, the election was critical to his political career and to the longterm success of his young administration. He thought it was equally important for the well-being of the state, for it showed that voters were willing to stand behind representatives who took a stand for what they thought was good for the state and their constituents.

We’d like to think so, too, but the election did not definitively answer the question. We will see next month, at two sessions of the legislature, whether the election meaningfully affected the future of the great expansion of Medicaid to nearly 300,000 Arkansans. Gov. Hutchinson hoped that the election of the five candidates he endorsed against Republican opponents heavily financed by outside groups opposing the Medicaid expansion sent a strong message to wavering legislators and their constituents that continuing the program was vital to the stability of the state government and its budget and to the general well-being of the people. He hoped other legislators got the message that they, too, would not pay a price if they stood their ground and voted to continue a slightly tweaked version of the so-called “private option” and appropriated the money for it.

This has been the key to the governor’s early success, just as it was the key to the late success of his predecessor, Mike Beebe, who managed to finagle a three-fourths majority of both houses of the legislature, twice, to appropriate money to fund the program. It was hard for both men, but especially for Hutchinson, because it was viewed, rightly, as a key feature of Obamacare, the still highly unpopular health-insurance reform adopted by Congress six years ago. Republicans everywhere, no more stridently than in Arkansas, ran against President Obama and his signature achievement, the health law to which enemies attached the sobriquet “Obamacare.”

Whether Hutchinson would have pushed the implementation of Medicaid for working poor men and women at the outset he has never said. But once it was implemented, with its massive tax savings for the state and its tremendous stimulation of the Arkansas economy, Hutchinson inherited a situation he could not afford to sacrifice. For three straight years, the legislature enacted politically popular tax cuts because Obamacare flushed so much money into the state treasury that legislators figured that the budget could stand the tax cuts without cutting services.

If Medicaid is suddenly lost on July 1 or the end of the year, the state—the governor and legislature—will have to restore nearly $100 million a year in state funds for existing health care services, restore cuts made in institutional services at the state medical center and Arkansas Children’s Hospital because of the new federal insurance for the poor and figure out what to do for all the state’s community hospitals that would suddenly see reimbursement for their charitable services eliminated.

Tuesday’s election will not change the identity of the people who will be voting next month on the private option—make that “Arkansas Works,” the governor’s new name for the program. It was problematical before Tuesday that Hutchinson could get the votes to continue the program after this fiscal year ends, June 30. Hutchinson confided Wednesday that it was still problematical. “We’re not there yet,” he said.

Let’s hope the governor proves to be as sure-footed politically as we think he is. His problems are not easy to combat: ignorance and unyielding partisanship. People, including many lawmakers who have been through the hearings, do not understand the law and still believe the commercials and flyers from 2010 that said implementing the law would cost millions of jobs, wreck state budgets, enlarge federal budget deficits, and cause people to lose their insurance or be unable to choose their doctors or hospitals.

As the governor could tell them (don’t expect that much!), exactly the opposite has been true, especially here in the Bear State. But good luck anyway, governor.