Tuesday, April 12, 2016

EDITORIAL >> Arkansas held hostage

The Arkansas legislature will return to the capital today for what was supposed to be 30 days of routine roll calls to rubberstamp budget acts. Now, thanks to two disparate gentlemen—Barack Obama and Asa Hutchinson—it looms as the most momentous legislative session since the state’s historic racial crisis 60 years ago.

So much rides on it: the physical wellbeing of nearly a million citizens who depend on some federal and state help to insure their medical care, the state government’s fiscal soundness, the economic well-being of a whole state that has finally soared out of the great recession, Arkansas’ ebbing highway and street-repair programs, Gov. Hutchinson’s political future . . . You get the picture.

All of that depends on one part of only one of the 800 appropriation bills the legislature adopts each year. It is Hutchinson’s Arkansas Works program, which provides subsidized insurance to some 265,000 men and women whose earnings are so small they cannot afford the big monthly premiums of regular health insurance or medical care outside hospital emergency rooms, which must treat them whether they can pay or not.

Until last week, Arkansas Works was called the Private Option or more commonly just Obamacare. The Private Option was the name applied to the expansion of Medicaid to poor working adults, one of the major features of the Affordable Care Act of 2010, aka Obamacare, but Hutchinson thought he needed to doctor the program some so that people would no longer associate it with the unpopular president. The legislature—all the Democrats and many Republicans—went along and reauthorized the old program with a new name by huge margins in both houses.

But not three-fourths of them, which the legislature by common practice since 1935 has considered necessary (wrongly, we think) to pass most appropriation bills. Nine of the 35 senators, all tea-party Republicans, vow they will vote against the appropriation of all federal and state Medicaid funds for the year that starts July 1, which includes money for Arkansas Works, to show how much they despise Barack Obama and everything associated with him. They have the power to thwart the will of the other 126 lawmakers and the governor. They all owe their offices to their campaigns against the black president and his health law. The Arkansas congressional delegation—all six of them—have the same political debt. They vote regularly to repeal Obamacare, refuse to confirm his nominees for federal jobs and oppose everything he and the regulatory agencies under his command propose to do.

Conservative legislators from Northwest Arkansas who voted for Arkansas Works and will now vote for the Medicaid appropriation confided at the Capitol last week how politically perilous their own votes were. Too many people back home were inured to the notion that Obama’s health law was a dastardly communist plot that will bankrupt the state and the country and that the 265,000 beneficiaries of Arkansas Works and the 800,000 children, disabled and elderly who receive Medicaid assistance or their family members are shiftless and undeserving of any help paying their medical bills or insurance. The Koch brothers, the oil and manufacturing barons who have amassed a net worth of a hundred billion dollars with federal subsidies of one sort or another, had their political arm put out a statement yesterday cheering the legislators who are determined to end help to the poorest 40 percent of Arkansans. The brothers had helped elect them.

It was quite a sight on the legislative floor last week: Rep. Charlie Collins and Sen. Jim Hendren, both right-wing Republicans, pleading with the handful of foes and with their own constituents back home to understand that the Medicaid program and Obamacare (which they nevertheless hate) actually reduce federal budget deficits and improve rather than undermine the state’s fiscal condition, now and for as long into the future as they can see.

But their pleas fell on deaf ears. Hutchinson at least grasped that when he was running for governor in 2014 and, unlike nearly all other Republican politicians, would not condemn the “private option” and promise to scrap it. Since then, he has made the case over and over that if the legislature ends the program it will decimate the state’s budget, force massive cuts in services all over the state, throw thousands out of jobs, and undermine the health of a quarter-million of the neediest people.

If the whole Medicaid program is ended, nursing homes and all the centers for the mentally and physically disabled will be closed, regional mental health services will be halted. If that happens, the nine senators who caused it will experience the wrath of their neighbors and friends who for the first time will understand what it was all about. Those ne’er-do-wells who wanted a handout were they.

Hutchinson pulled out all the plugs yesterday. Everybody wants a highway program but without paying taxes for it. Hutchinson plans a special session next month to carve away some general revenues and future surpluses to match $200 billion in federal highway and street aid the next few years without levying taxes. If the Medicaid expansion goes down, he said, there will be no special session and no highway program.

All hands will have to come aboard to save the sinking ship of state. He didn’t dare mention another good Republican who left office last fall cursed for consciously taking Louisiana down the same path the nine lawmakers are mapping for Arkansas. Hutchinson is determined not to be another Bobby Jindal. Wish him well. —Ernie Dumas