LITTLE ROCK — A bill to appropriate $915 million in federal funding for the so-called private option failed Tuesday in the House in a 70-27 vote.

LITTLE ROCK — A bill to appropriate $915 million in federal funding for the so-called private option failed Tuesday in the House in a 70-27 vote.


The measure needed a three-fourths majority vote, or 75 votes in the 100-member House, to pass. House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, said previously that if the bill did not pass on the first vote, the House would consider it again.


Last week the House voted to adopt amendments to the program that uses federal Medicaid money to provide private health insurance to people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. The amendments include one that would bar the state from promoting the private option and the Arkansas Health Insurance Marketplace.


Rep. Bate Bell, R-Mena, who sponsored that amendment, urged House members Tuesday to vote for the appropriation. He said he opposed the private option when it was approved two years ago, but he said a compromise is necessary if the Legislature is to complete its work within the 45-day maximum allowed for a fiscal session.


"Conservatives are going to have to accept that we are not in a position to pass a complete defund," he said.


Rep. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, was one of several members who spoke against the program.


"I believe our children and grandchildren will inherit a debt that they will never be able to pay," he said.


House Majority Leader Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, urged a "no" vote, asking members, "Is Arkansas going to be an enabler for Obamacare?"


Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison, one of the architects of the program, said it has been successful so far, with nearly 100,000 Arkansans enrolled and premiums lower than projected.


"Let’s see if this experiment that we voted to try works," he said.


Meanwhile, Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, said Tuesday that Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, has said she will support the program. Her support gives the private option the needed 27 votes in the Senate.


English agreed to change her vote from a "no" last spring to a "yes" vote this week after she and Gov. Mike Beebe’s office agreed to a plan to restructure work force and education training in Arkansas.


Under the plan, about $15 million in existing Department of Workforce Services and state two-year college money will be used for jobs training and administered by the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. Beebe said the money would be used to train workers for existing industry needs.


Along with that money, Beebe said about $3.5 million from the rainy day fund and $1.2 million from general revenue also would be used.


By the 2015 legislative session, the initiative will seek a complete top-to-bottom review of all job training at the state’s two-year colleges and a possible realignment of nearly $254 million in work force training funds.


English told reporters her goal is to train and later employ people who would otherwise be living off state or federal government programs.


"While I don’t like the private option, what I don’t like even less is that we’re talking about over a third of our population being on some Medicaid program," she said. "I’ve asked the question what are we going to do to get people off these programs, so we have fewer and fewer people the on private option, food stamps, unemployment and all that."


She said she has 30 years experience in economic development and "we don’t have the skilled workers and we don’t have the system built up K-12 and through college, so for me it was an opportunity for me to put something on the table that would hopefully be a game changer for the state of Arkansas."


Before being elected to the Legislature, English served as director of the Workforce Investment Board and later was director of the state Manufacturers Association.


Beebe said he has advocated such a proposal for years.


"The whole work force thing has been fragmented among a bunch of different agencies and it hasn’t been performance based," Beebe told reporters. "It hasn’t been tied to programs where you actually are showing that the workforce training by two-year colleges or tech schools … or the workforce development folks has actually been geared toward real job creation in conjunction with business and industry."


The governor and Dismang said the agreement reached with English developed over a series of meetings and praised English for supporting something that would benefit the entire state, not just her Senate district.


"This is transforming a program and it’s something that would be pretty remarkable for the state," Dismang said, adding that English also "was very involved" with the amendments approved on the House floor last week.


"I think that resolved some of her issues, not all her issues on the private option, but some of them," Dismang said.


Beebe said English has been involved in economic and workforce development for years and once approached Gov. Mike Huckabee with a similar plan, which was rejected.


In response to a question on whether the governor’s office was buying English’s vote, Beebe said the negotiations were a routine part of the process.


"She’s not asking for the moon," Beebe said. "She is asking for a coordinated effort that has performance-based measurements there so you can see where your money is going. It’s a worthy cause, party of what we’ve been preaching all along."


English did not immediately return a call Tuesday seeking comment.


Last year, the House appropriated federal funding for the private option with two votes to spare. The Senate approved the appropriation with one extra vote, but two members have said they will vote against it this time around — one of them a member who voted for it last year but says she has changed her mind and the other a newly elected member who opposes the private option.


About 97,000 Arkansans have already obtained health insurance under the private option, according to the state Department of Human Services.