The debate over the "private option" health care expansion was by far the most hotly debated issue in the recent state legislative session. In the end, about 80 percent of lawmakers from both parties agreed it was the right approach to effectively utilize the federal funds available through Medicaid expansion while injecting needed reforms into the program. The result is a system unique to Arkansas.
The program is being put together, but one group is trying to start the debate all over again with a proposed referendum that would let voters decide whether to keep the private option or repeal it in the November 2014 general election.
Glenn Gallas is heading up a group called Arkansans Against Big Government. Last week, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel approved a ballot title for the referendum proposal. That clears the way for Gallas’ group to gather signatures to qualify the measure for the 2014 ballot.
One item working in the group’s favor is that the threshold of signatures needed to qualify is lowest for a referendum — 46,880, which is 6 percent of the number of people who voted in the most recent gubernatorial election. Ballot initiatives require 8 percent and constitutional amendments 10 percent.
However, time is not on the group’s side. The required number of signatures must be turned in within 90 days of the official end of the legislative session, which means signatures must be submitted to the secretary of state’s office by Aug. 15 — a little less than two months from now.
AABG’s success may depend on whether outside groups provide organizational support and funds for the largely grassroots organization.
Gallas has indicated a couple of groups may lend support — FreedomWorks and its web-based FreedomConnector to promote the referendum and train volunteers, and Americans for Prosperity, one of the groups that worked against passage of the private option during the session.
FreedomWorks is a conservative organization founded in part by former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who has since parted ways with the group. According to its website, "FreedomWorks recruits, educates, trains and mobilizes millions of volunteer activists to fight for less government, lower taxes and more freedom."
Gallas may have spoken too soon about the extent of AFP’s support.
Jason Cline, the group’s state director, said AFP has a policy of not getting involved in the signature-gathering process.
"We have, and will continue to do, policy education and events about why we think the private option is bad for Arkansas, which technically helps their cause because people become aware of bad policy," Cline said. "If they are successful in gathering the necessary signatures, then we will have a conversation about what our role or involvement in that will be. As of right now, we are thoughtfully considering this and have not made a final decision as to what level of engagement we will be taking."
Just how much "policy education and events" AFP will do during the next couple months is not yet clear but the referendum’s success could hinge on how much that group and others participate. To make the deadline, AABG will need to gather around 800 signatures a day and also will need to collect them across at least 15 Arkansas counties. That is a daunting task for a purely grassroots organization.
That is not to say it cannot be done. It certainly will not be hard to persuade voters to sign the petition by saying that this is a "fight against the implementation of Obamacare," as Gallas frames it.
And if the group is successful, a referendum on the private option definitely will have a huge impact on the 2014 election.
Jason Tolbert is an accountant and conservative political blogger. His blog — The Tolbert Report — is linked at ArkansasNews.com. His e-mail is jason@TolbertReport.com.