LITTLE ROCK — In a meeting with reporters Wednesday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson and legislative leaders discussed the state’s Medicaid expansion program, tax cuts, medical marijuana and other topics that are likely be part of the legislative session that begins next week.
House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, and Senate Majority Leader Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, joined Hutchinson in the meeting at the state Capitol arranged by the Arkansas Associated Press Managing Editors.
All three said that in contrast with past years, they do not expect a tough fight over reauthorizing and funding the state’s Medicaid expansion program.
“My sense is that there’s not an appetite to refight the issues that we have battles on before, getting the three-fourths (majority vote in each chamber) to fund Arkansas Works,” Hutchinson said. “I think that battle is behind us.”
The governor said he believes that instead of fighting to undo the program, legislators will support his effort to obtain broader waivers from Donald Trump’s administration so the state can impose new restrictions on the program, such as a work requirement for able-bodied adults.
Gillam said House members on both sides of the issue “are taking a little bit more of a patient approach, to kind of see where this thing lands.”
Hendren said he expects to see states get more flexibility regarding Medicaid expansion under Trump, but probably not during the next session. The Arkansas Legislature may need to hold a special session to address changes approved by the federal government, he said.
In the short term, Hendren said several senators who sought to block funding for Medicaid expansion in the past “have told me they don’t have the same desire to do that in the future.”
Hutchinson said he has let Trump know he would like to see Medicaid expansion limited to people earning up to 100 percent of the federal poverty level. Currently, the Arkansas program provides government-subsidized private health insurance to Arkansans earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.
Gillam said the governor will push for his tax-cut plan and said he expects several House members to push for rival proposals. Some may argue for not cutting taxes at all in light of reports showing that state revenues are below forecast, he said.
“I think realistically, with some of these soft reports and stuff, I think one of the concepts and ideas that will be talked about will be just taking a deep breath and kind of holding up and maybe not doing anything this time,” Gillam said.
Hutchinson has said he will ask lawmakers to approve a $50 million income tax cut, to take effect at the beginning of the 2019 tax year, for people earning less than $21,000 a year, as well as an exemption from state income taxes for military retirement benefits, which is estimated to cost the state $13 million a year.
The governor told reporters Wednesday he would not be in favor of holding off on any tax cuts this year. He said he remains confident the state can afford his plan and said it is a step on the way toward providing tax relief to high-income Arkansans.
“It takes time to do that. It takes a long-term commitment. If you delay that commitment and say now is not the right time, then it makes it harder down the road,” said Hutchinson, who won legislative approval of a middle-class income-tax cut in 2015.
Hutchinson said a focus of legislation regarding medical marijuana, which voters approved legalizing in November, should be to ensure that marijuana is used for medicinal, not recreational, purposes.
The governor also said he would support requiring licensing for those who transport marijuana between cultivation centers and dispensaries and said he would oppose raising taxes on marijuana to pay for other parts of state government.
Hutchinson said he sees no need for Arkansas to enact legislation regarding transgender bathroom access. Some legislators have said they favor legislation like North Carolina’s that requires people to use the bathroom that matches the gender on their birth certificate, regardless of whether they identify as a different gender.
“I do not believe we ought to be engaged in legislation when there’s not a problem,” he said.
Hutchinson said he supports ending the state’s joint Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee holiday and making the day a holiday for King only. He said he favors creating a separate day of recognition for Lee in October that would not be a state holiday.
“It just strikes me as the right thing to do,” Hutchinson said.
The governor said he is generally supportive of requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls, but he would want to review any legislation on that issue to make sure it would not be a burden on voters.
Hutchinson said he has “a resistance” to legislation that would punish so-called “sanctuary cities” for refusing to cooperate with the federal government in enforcing immigration laws, but he would review any bills on the issue.
Asked if he believes it would be appropriate to pursue abortion restrictions in light of the possibility of a different makeup on U.S. Supreme Court while Trump is in office, Hutchinson said he does.
“When it comes to the pro-life issues, I do believe it is fair to look at individual pieces of legislation and say, ‘This is an opportunity to move the court, to move the debate, and to try to move another case to the Supreme Court for consideration,’” he said.